All the outsiders are now in.
CNN’s decision to tweak its criteria to qualify for the “main stage” in the next Republican presidential debate, to be held Sept. 16, means that Carly Fiorina is likely to make it. And that means all three of the political outsiders – Donald Trump, Ben Carson, and Ms. Fiorina, none of whom have ever held elective office – will be up there together.
We so want to call those three the “Mod Squad” of the 2016 race, after the old police drama featuring a white man, a black man, and a white woman. But Mr. Trump, Mr. Carson, and Fiorina are working as a team only in the most general sense. Together, they’re showing the political establishment that it’s not cutting it with a wide swath of the Republican electorate. The latest poll out of Iowa shows their combined support among likely GOP caucus-goers at an astonishing 56 percent.
But more likely, what CNN has done is set up a showdown between Trump and Fiorina, the two brawlers of the GOP field. Trump’s verbal fisticuffs are well documented. But Fiorina, too, loves to wear the gloves. Long before she was deemed the winner of the “undercard” GOP debate last month, the former CEO of Hewlett-Packard was telling anyone who would listen that she’s ready to “throw a punch” at Democratic frontrunner Hillary Clinton.
At the Aug. 6 Fox News debate of lower-tier candidates, Fiorina nailed Trump over the phone call he got from former President Bill Clinton, who reportedly told him to run: "I didn't get a phone call from Bill Clinton before I jumped in the race. Did any of you get a phone call from Bill Clinton?" she said, looking to the other candidates. "I didn't. Maybe it's because I hadn't given money to the [Clinton] foundation or donated to his wife's Senate campaign."
Ouch. Trump, too, has sent some nasty-grams Fiorina’s way. A few days after the first debate, he tweeted out that listening to Fiorina gives him “a massive headache.” And “she has zero chance!”
Now they can go mano-a-mano on stage at the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library. We suspect Trump will go after Fiorina for getting fired by HP. But we’re also sure that Fiorina is working up her own barbs at Trump’s past.
One point is clear: Having Fiorina on stage will be good for ratings, and good for the Republican Party’s image. Fiorina is the only woman in a 17-candidate field in a party that has long labored under a gender gap.
CNN announced late Tuesday that any candidate who places in the top 10 in the average of major polls between Aug. 7 and Sept. 10 will qualify for the prime-time debate Sept. 16. The latest RealClearPolitics average has Fiorina in seventh place at 5.8 percent. Trump leads with 26.5 percent and Carson is in second at 12 percent.
It’s worth noting that Fox News also tweaked its criteria before the first debate, allowing more of the lower-tier candidates to take part in the before-prime-time debate. And in this wild ride of the 2016 presidential contest, all the improvising shows how in some ways, we’re all just making it up as we go along. Few predicted the strength of the “outsider” candidates – not the media, not the party establishments, and for the most part, not even the outsiders themselves.
When Sen. Bernie Sanders, the outsider phenomenon on the Democratic side, started drawing massive crowds, he expressed surprise. The only one who says he’s not surprised is Trump. And that, at least, was predictable.