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Charles Krauthammer: Odds are changing for presidential candidates

Since the debate, GOP presidential candidate Donald Trump’s poll numbers have plateaued. Nonetheless, his core support remains solid.
Since the debate, GOP presidential candidate Donald Trump’s poll numbers have plateaued. Nonetheless, his core support remains solid. AP

Both presidential nomination contests having been scrambled by recent events – the FBI taking control of Hillary Clinton’s private e-mail server and a raucous, roiling GOP debate – the third edition of the Racing Form is herewith rushed into print.

▪  Hillary Clinton: Ever since her disastrous book-launch performance, I’ve thought her both a weak candidate and the inevitable Democratic nominee.

No longer. She has fallen from her 95 percent barring-an-act-of-God perch. The e-mail imbroglio has already badly damaged her credibility. But now that she’s lost control of the server, there is potential for further, conceivably fatal, damage. It hinges largely on how successful she was in erasing the 32,000 e-mails she unilaterally deemed private.

Whatever happens, she will stay in the race. Clintons never quit. But if more top-secret information is found, if she did destroy work-related e-mails, and if her numbers continue their steady decline, the party might decide it simply can’t afford to continue carrying her baggage.

Odds: 1-3.

▪  Bernie Sanders: A less flighty, more serious Gene McCarthy. Fiery and genial, Sanders is the perfect protest candidate. But can a 73-year-old dairy-state Brooklynite socialist win? Of course not. If Clinton falls, Joe Biden fills the vacuum. Possibly even John Kerry.

Meanwhile, over at the GOP….

▪  Donald Trump: Clear front-runner. Are you waiting for him to bring himself down? He won’t. He’s impervious to the gaffe. In fact, he has a genius for turning a gaffe into a talking point, indeed, a rallying cry.

Since the debate, his numbers have plateaued, and in some places declined. In New Hampshire, for example, he’s gone from the mid-20s to the high teens. And he had a rough debate, as reflected in the Suffolk University poll in Iowa taken right afterward, in which, by 55 to 23 percent, respondents felt less comfortable with him as president.

Nonetheless, his core support, somewhere around 20 percent (plus or minus a couple), remains solid. That means Trump will likely continue to lead until the field whittles down to a handful, at which point 20 percent is no longer a plurality.

Teflon Don. Solid constituency, fixed ceiling. Chances of winning his party’s nomination? About the same as Sanders winning his.

▪  Jeb Bush, Scott Walker, Marco Rubio: Still the top tier. Walker just held his own in the debate. Bush slipped slightly, appearing somewhat passive and, amazingly, still lacking a good answer to the “brother’s war” question. But he continues steady with a serious follow-up foreign policy speech and stick-to-his-guns positions on Common Core and immigration.

Rubio had the best debate performance of the prime-time 10 – fluid, passionate, in command. And he was already No. 1 in the “whom could you support” question (at 62 percent), crucial in a 17-member field.

Odds for each? Rubio, 3-1. Bush and Walker, 4-1.

▪  Ted Cruz, John Kasich, Carly Fiorina: The new second tier. And rising. Cruz had a strong debate, establishing himself as the most convincing carrier of the populist, anti-Washington meme.

Kasich was engaging and compelling as the bleeding-heart conservative and successful tough-guy governor. Not an easy trick.

Fiorina displayed raw talent that surprised everyone who didn’t know her – and 6 million watched. Articulate, knowledgeable and relentlessly combative, she took on Clinton, Trump and Barack Obama.

Odds for the second-tier: 9-1, but with high ceilings for each.

Charles Krauthammer is a columnist with the Washington Post Writers Group.

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