Do or Die

If Jeb Bush strikes out in tonight’s GOP debate, look for one of these two senators to emerge in the spotlight. 

Jeb Bush.
Republican presidential candidate Jeb Bush speaks at the College of Southern Nevada, Oct. 21, 2015, in North Las Vegas.

Photo by David Becker/Getty

Tonight, Jeb Bush sinks or swims.

For the past month, since the last Republican presidential debate, the erstwhile front-runner has struggled to capture ground and stake a position. On his flank are Donald Trump and Ben Carson, who draw crowds and dollars with an anti-establishment—and often anti-Bush—message. Close behind is Sen. Marco Rubio, who offers the same message as Bush with a fresh face and the promise of a more diverse, cosmopolitan party. And in front, blocking movement, are Bush’s own two feet. Faced with the fraught legacy of his brother George W. Bush, Jeb has floundered, defending an unpopular presidency against tough attacks on both sides of the aisle.

All of this has pulled Bush from a second-place spot in the Republican presidential race with double-digit support to somewhere in the vast middle of the pack. And while Bush has cash on hand—overwhelmingly from elite spenders—his donors are impatient with his performance. If the former Florida governor can’t deliver, it might be time for a different candidate to claim the establishment mantle.

This isn’t as straightforward as it looks. Rubio looks like the natural choice: He’s a young, gifted communicator with a strong biography and orthodox Republican views. But Rubio the candidate hasn’t caught up with Rubio the idea. His fundraising lags behind that of his rivals; in the last quarter, he raised $5.7 million, compared to $20.8 million for Ben Carson, $13.4 million for Bush, and $12.2 million for Cruz. And like Bush, most of this cash comes from the wealthiest contributors—just 22 percent of Rubio’s support came from small donors. That said, he also falls short on super PAC support—Carson’s super PAC raised $11.3 million, while Cruz’s raised $13.8 million.

Rubio’s modest fundraising translates to a slim operation. Compared to his competitors, he has few offices and staff, focusing on volunteer recruitment. The upside is that—if Rubio can attract substantial volunteer support—he can quickly organize in Iowa and New Hampshire, where he’s spent relatively little time. The downside, as one GOP source explained to Politico, is that this is an “unpredictable and risky bet that traditional campaign organizing doesn’t matter.” If it doesn’t pay off, the junior senator from Florida is finished.

It’s also worth noting the degree to which Rubio has escaped serious scrutiny from either opponents or media. On the former, everyone—and especially Bush—is dealing with Trump, who spits insults like a battle rapper but is almost invulnerable to the same. Bush’s team has knocked Rubio as a “GOP Obama,” but that’s a compliment—Barack Obama won a tough primary and two presidential elections with a majority of the vote—as much as an attack on his youth and inexperience. Likewise, in the media, Rubio has been hyped as the de facto front-runner—a Republican savior.

The truth, however, is we don’t actually know how Rubio performs against strong attacks and intense scrutiny. He wasn’t ignored in the last two debates, but he wasn’t the focus either—then, the title round was Trump vs. Bush and Trump vs. Fiorina. Tonight, he could stumble as much as he could break out of the pack. And if it’s the latter, he’ll face the full—and likely hostile—attention of everyone. Rubio is a talented, savvy politician. But that kind of scrutiny is a test, and it’s not clear Rubio will pass, especially if it goes beyond theater criticism of his style and into uncomfortable questions about his background in Florida state politics.

Bush and Rubio are under the spotlight at tonight’s debate, but there’s another figure who deserves our attention—Ted Cruz. Like Carson, he’s a prodigious fundraiser, but he draws support from grass-roots donors and wealthy contributors. “The structure of his donor base,” notes the Washington Post, “closely resembles that of President Obama, whose vaunted fundraising operation intensely focused on low-dollar givers as well as major bundlers, bringing in a record $783 million for his 2012 reelection.” He sits at the crossroads of the Republican Party—socially conservative, hawkish, anti-tax, and pro-business interests—and has attracted support from mainstream GOP elites as well as right-wing activists.

He stands at 6.6 percent in the polls, but with a respectable résumé (Harvard Law School, the U.S. Senate), anti-establishment bona fides (the 2013 government shutdown), and real inroads with the religious right (he announced at the evangelical Liberty University in Virginia and is holding a rally at Bob Jones University in South Carolina), he’s poised to inherit Trump and Carson voters if either candidate leaves the race. And this is to say nothing of a serious campaign operation in Iowa, New Hampshire, and beyond.

For as much as we’re focused on Jeb Bush, Marco Rubio, Donald Trump, and Ben Carson, Wednesday’s debate might be the night that Ted Cruz steps on stage as the one to beat in the Republican presidential race.