The Democrats- Hillary Clinton, Martin O'Malley, and Bernie Sanders- focused much of their discussion in Saturday night's debate in New Hampshire against the GOP around Donald Trump, giving him greater legitimacy as the leader of the Republican Party.
Last night's debate lacked the same energy of the contentious Republican debates, but the Democrats seem content to go about the debates without much contention between the candidates, even ignoring important topics such as immigration. The Democrats also seem satisfied with the emergence of Donald Trump as the face of the GOP and are in no rush to turn the attention to themselves.
That is good news for Donald Trump and good news for Democrats, but should be of growing concern for the GOP. With Donald Trump continuing to surge in the polls, gaining his highest support among primary voters in the latest NBC/WSJ poll and leading with 27%, the three Democratic candidates are forcing the GOP to own the values espoused by Republican voters by their preference for Trump.
The popularity of Donald Trump and the surprisingly weak showing by Jeb Bush has had the GOP establishment alarmed and seeking alternatives. The NBC/WSJ poll found that Clinton would trounce Trump in a general election matchup by 50% to 40%. Perhaps this is why the "establishment candidate" moniker has been cast on Marco Rubio, though Rubio has run as an outsider and shrugged off the establishment label.
The same NBC/WSJ poll numbers show that Marco Rubio would defeat Hillary Clinton in a general election. Marco Rubio also reiterated a more moderate stance on immigration, saying in an exclusive interview with NBC News that he was uncomfortable by the presence of a large undocumented population being present in the country.
Donald Trump didn't waste any time cashing in on the attention as the front runner on the eve of the Democratic debate, calling Hillary Clinton a "snake" at a Christmas themed rally Saturday afternoon in Cedar Rapids, Iowa.
The attention as front runner for Donald Trump by the Democrats will present a stark ideological decision for Republican voters, which may begin to press the GOP to make strategic decisions over who can win in a national election.
While Donald Trump seems to be the clear preference among primary voters, the friendly relationship between Donald Trump and Ted Cruz may present Cruz as a viable political alternative to voters who care more about winning in November than supporting a particular candidate. Similarly, Marco Rubio has risen as the strongest moderate candidate to Jeb Bush among the group, with Chris Christie having made up some space over the last week.
The direction of the Republican Party over the next year will largely hinge on the ideological choices now emerging within the GOP and the Democratic candidates seemed eager to encourage Donald Trump as the face of the Republican Party. However, it may also cause Republican voters who prefer Trump or Cruz some hesitation if the Democrats are so anxious to crown the more extreme wing of the party as the face of the GOP.
The Democrat contenders had perhaps their best night of debating, with Hillary Clinton demonstrating as much charisma as she has shown all year in front of the audience, which is quite unfortunate for her since the debate was held on the last Saturday evening before Christmas- a time slot not likely to break any records for viewership. Bernie Sanders and Martin O'Malley similarly came out with strong performances, perhaps because it is much easier to manage a three-way race than the much larger Republican debates.