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Act Two: Scott Walker's exit marks new phase in GOP race

As ad spending ramps up and actual voting draws closer, things are kicking into a new gear.
Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker announces that he will end his bid for the White House at a news conference Sept. 21, 2015 in Madison, Wisconsin. (Photo by Andy Manis/Getty)
Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker announces that he will end his bid for the White House at a news conference Sept. 21, 2015 in Madison, Wisconsin. 

The second debate knocked off one former front-runner in Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker and elevated a former bottom tier contender in Carly Fiorina, signaling a new act in the drama that is the Republican presidential primary. As ad spending ramps up and actual voting draws closer, things are kicking into higher gear.

Aside from Walker’s fall and Fiorina’s rise, limited polls since the debate suggest the broad dynamics are mostly unchanged. Donald Trump is still the main show, Dr. Ben Carson is still a hit with the right, Jeb Bush is still the money leader stuck in neutral with voters, Senators Marco Rubio and Ted Cruz are preparing for their close up, Ohio Gov. John Kasich is showing promise with moderates in New Hampshire, and the rest of the candidates are dealing with existential crises of varying degrees. Here are some of the main stories that will determine how the next act leading up to Iowa turns out.

Donald Trump versus adversity

For months, Donald Trump has had a ready reply to anyone who questions his positions, his knowledge, his language, his political savvy or anything else regarding his presidential campaign: I’m leading in the polls and you’re not.

So here’s a question: What happens if Trump stops leading? We got a taste of it this week with a CNN survey that showed his first place lead shrinking by 8 points after the second debate. Trump responded predictably by complaining about the poll, but a candidate who whines about the polls looks a lot less intimidating than one who boasts about them. The same goes for a candidate who, facing his first round of attack ads from a conservative outside group, responds by threatening a multi-million dollar lawsuit.

Almost no nominee leads end-to-end in every state – at some point it’s likely any front-runner has to overcome a surge from someone else. Trump, however, may be more vulnerable to this problem than others. While his willingness to go further on immigration than his rivals gave him his initial boost, his broader message has been a general pledge that as president he will win and keep winning just as he wins at all things. Any weakness undermines that message. Trump’s been anything but boring so far, but as the conversation turns to policy details more, as it did in his listless second debate, he may also have a tough time keeping the same manic energy around his campaign high all the way until the first votes in February.

 The outsiders under the microscope

Trump has largely proved immune to bad press so far -- a rare superpower in primary politics. For normal candidates, there’s usually a cycle in which they gain popularity with voters, attract more attention from the press and attacks from rivals, and then have to prove whether they can withstand the added scrutiny. We’re starting to see that now with Carson and Fiorina, two outsider candidates who have each seen impressive movement in state and national polls.

In Carson’s case, some of his more extreme views are coming into the spotlight, particularly on Muslim citizens. The debate around Trump’s failure to dress down a bigoted questioner roped Carson into a far more revealing conversation about whether he could accept a Muslim president that drifted into far right territory where the rest of the field is so far unwilling to tread. Carson’s rise with conservatives largely took place under the radar at first, but now that he’s in second place in most polls he’ll face a lot more questions – including from conservatives – teasing out his more unorthodox views and testing his inexperience. 

Fiorina’s rise has been different -- her latest bump is the immediate product of an exceptionally strong second debate. Now she is also going through the ringer, including a contentious debate with fact checkers over her debate answer on abortion, which cited hidden camera footage of Planned Parenthood that does not seem to exist. The biggest weakness for Fiorina, though, is something her campaign has known was coming from the start: Her business record. As CEO of Hewlett-Packard, Fiorina fired tens of thousands of workers, clashed with her colleagues, and was panned in the business press as a failure before being forced out with a $21 million golden parachute. These attacks wrecked her Senate campaign in California and are far more immediate than the more indirect tales about Bain that hobbled Mitt Romney in 2012. Fiorina is trying to reframe her tenure at HP early as another outsider battle against entrenched interests – a campaign memo to reporters on Tuesday likened her “tough decisions” to lay off workers to “tough decisions in Washington” she would make to cut spending. 

The shrinking establishment lane

When the race started, the Big Three candidates in the establishment lane were Walker, Bush, and Rubio. With Walker gone, there’s more room for one of the remaining contenders to steal his donors and try to consolidate support as the most polished and electable candidate.

The moment is starting to look particularly ripe for Rubio, who has laid low over the last three months. He’s turned in two solid debate performances now and, in stark contrast to Bush and Walker, hasn’t made any major mistakes on the trail. But he also hasn’t gotten much of a polling boost yet either. His campaign manager Terry Sullivan claimed on Monday that this is by design – let the other candidates rise and fall under scrutiny (see above), then seize the moment to pitch Rubio as the most consistent and electable candidate. At some point, Republican voters are bound to notice that progressive pundits are more scared of Rubio – especially matched up against Hillary Clinton -- than anyone else in the race.

Bush has had his stumbles, but he’s also avoided Walker’s total collapse and still has a $100 million plus super PAC that’s only just starting to air ads. He’ll get his chance as well to prove that he’s still the right choice for Republicans who want an experienced hand. Kasich has an even longer political resume than Bush and could make a case as a dark horse alternative as well.

With Trump finally looking at least somewhat mortal and the other outsiders still shaky, the odds are still strong that one of the more establishment-friendly candidates ultimately carries the day. Sen. Ted Cruz, who has proved a strong fundraiser, will get a clear shot to try and overthrow the system, however, especially if Trump – whose supporters Cruz has courted for months -- collapses.