His challenge remains the same for the many candidates struggling to break into the race’s top tier: How do you take full advantage of a brief moment on the debate stage to change the trajectory of your campaign?
“Maybe 12, 13 of these candidates, there’s not going to be another shot after this. To some extent, not qualifying for the next debate is a death sentence,” Robby Mook, who managed Hillary Clinton’s 2016 presidential campaign, told Borger.
Campaign veterans who spoke with CNN said their advice to the lower-polling candidates is this: Go in with a short list of clear goals, fight for speaking time and try to walk the fine line between differentiating and damaging yourself.
“You [can] only have two to four goals. I don’t think any more than that is accomplishable,” Stuart Stevens, a veteran of Republican campaigns ranging from Mitt Romney to George W. Bush, said in an interview with Borger. “Ideally, before the debate, you look at your polling and you’d say, who do I need to talk to…You would never make an ad that just says, well, I don’t know, I’m not sure who it’s going to apply to. It would be like shooting a shotgun in the air and hoping ducks fly by.”
“You almost have to be willing to just keep talking and don’t stop talking… Don’t raise your hand,” he said. “One thing I learned in prep was that the moderators don’t care if you’re raising your hand. They’re not professors, they’re not teachers. You really just have to lean in and assert yourself.”
“You have to give people a reason why they should listen to you. And when there’s other alternatives up there that are acceptable, there’s always this question like why are you on the shelf?… I mean, do we really need eight variations of barbeque potato chips? I’ve got four choices. I’m going to find some barbeque potato chips I like,” Stevens said.
But work too hard at differentiating yourself and you could do lasting damage, Mook warned.
“There’s a real downside to looking desperate and some of these folks need to think about their career two, three, four, five years down the line. Personally, I don’t think it’s worth it. I don’t think it’s worth stooping to that level and looking small.”
“You have to be willing, first of all, to admit that you’re probably going to lose. Because most people who run for President lose,” Stevens said. “You have to be willing to lose and stand for something… You can try too hard running for President and it will always come back and bite you.”