Republicans opposed to the rise of businessman Donald Trump said Thursday night’s GOP debate should be used as a moment for his remaining opponents to slow his political momentum.
Rather than attack each other during the debate — which airs from Houston on CNN at 7:30 p.m. CDT — strategists said Trump's four rivals should focus their charges squarely on him. “Start making this significantly less fun for him than it is right now. If it’s not fun for him, he’ll perform worse,” said Liz Mair, a Republican strategist leading an anti-Trump super PAC.
On the day after the Nevada caucuses — a contest whose results triggered a flurry of press releases by the lower-performing candidates aimed at each other — Mair said it is clearer than ever their strategy of ignoring Trump is not working.
At the debate Thursday, she suggested his opponents target Trump for his record. She pointed to things such as his comments that American workers should be paid less to “compete” with China, his bankruptcies, the use of eminent domain and allegations of the employment of illegal immigrants by his businesses.
“Bait him. Get him angry and unhinged. Try to get him to walk into as many rhetorical traps as you can by just winding the guy up,” she said.
But Lisa Boothe, another Republican strategist, pointed out that Trump "had a train wreck of a debate before the South Carolina primary and swept the state by double digits.” In her view, the fight on the debate stage is one for second place. "It is a delegate game right now and they are just trying to stay viable,” she said.
While Mair said the debate is a "good opening" to get under the billionaire's skin, she added that the campaigns should put their budgets behind paid advertising against him, too. Her group, Make America Awesome, has only spent $20,000 — far less than the large sums of cash to which the candidates and their aligned political action committees have access.
Part of the problem with that, said Republican strategist Brian Walsh, is the fact that nobody fighting for the No. 2 spot is willing to budge.
"While there’s some frustration from outside observers that they’re not spending against Trump, their view is they need to make it a one-on-one race first," he said. “They haven’t put money behind the attacks, and there has not been a sustained attack, because everyone else is focused on that second and third lane."
Texas Sen. Ted Cruz — the third-place performer in Nevada who has staked part of his candidacy on winning the South on Tuesday — has taken on Trump, but he has recently pointed his barbs at Florida Sen. Marco Rubio, the man around whom the party's establishment appears to be trying to coalesce. So, too, did Ohio Gov. John Kasich, whose campaign released a memo early Wednesday saying, "Republicans are now left to wonder whether investing in Marco Rubio is throwing good money after bad."
Rubio, meanwhile, took to the morning shows Wednesday to urge party consolidation around a "clear alternative to Donald Trump."
As the Rubio campaign tries to put more fuel in the tank, it has been courting parts of the political apparatus that, until last week, had been behind former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush. They have publicly pulled a handful of Bush’s endorsers, and a former Bush fundraising bundler said they are trying to land some of the family’s financial support, too.
The issue of how to stop Trump's rise has befuddled established political strategists. And as long as it is a three-way race, Walsh said, the question is whether anyone other than Trump can get a majority of delegates. He does not think so. “I’m increasingly in the mindset that if this remains a three-way race, there’s a growing possibility of a brokered convention."
On March 1, Super Tuesday, when voters will voice their preference five days after Thursday's debate, 624 delegates from 12 states will be on the line. Already, voters in Iowa, New Hampshire, South Carolina and Nevada have awarded 133 delegates to the Republican National Convention.
Trump is leading the count with 82, according to the Associated Press. He is followed by Cruz with 17, Rubio with 16, Kasich, who has six, and retired neurosurgeon Ben Carson who has four. The remaining delegates are split between candidates who have dropped out. To win the nomination, a candidate needs 1,237 delegates.
The delegates up for grabs Tuesday — as well as the 357 that will be awarded from eight states, two territories and the District of Columbia between Super Tuesday and March 12 — will mostly be awarded to candidates proportionately unless they meet a state-specific threshold.
After March 15, a number of delegate-rich states such as Florida and Ohio are allowed to award delegates on a winner-take-all basis.
"Probably everyone but one non-Trump needs to drop before the winner-take-all states," Mair said. "But the most important thing is to hammer ... him."
Contact Yokley at EliYokley@RollCall.com and on Twitter @EYokley. Related: Roll Call Race Ratings Map: Ratings for Every House and Senate Race in 2016 Get breaking news alerts and more from Roll Call in your inbox or on your iPhone.