WASHINGTON — Republicans are steeling themselves for a long period of uncertainty following a raucous first debate of the 2016 presidential campaign.
There are no signs that Thursday’s debate will winnow their wide-open field anytime soon.
It wasn’t supposed to be this way.
Before the campaign got underway, Republican Party leaders developed a streamlined set of debates and a nomination calendar that aimed to avoid a messy fight.
But few envisioned a field of 17 candidates, the explosion of outside money that appears ready to keep second-tier candidates flush with cash, and the rise of Donald Trump.
“I don’t think we have to have total clarity,” said Reince Priebus, the Republican National Committee chairman. “I think clarity is boring. I think what we have right now is some excitement, intrigue, and that’s great, as long as you can contain it.”
He said “containment means jabs and a few elbows are great, but I think beyond that it can be problematic.”
Rival camps do not expect Trump to be a serious contender for the nomination when voting starts early next year. But they also cannot predict what might drive him from the race.
So far, he has proved to be immune from what would be viewed as missteps by any other candidate. But those missteps are piling up.
Trump was disinvited from a prominent conservative forum Saturday in Atlanta because of disparaging comments he made about Megyn Kelly, the Fox News moderator who had asked him tough questions in the debate.
For now, Trump’s unexpected summer surge has vaulted him to front-runner status. It will be several days before public polling shows whether he was damaged by his caustic debate comments about women and refusal to rule out a third-party run.
Most GOP strategists expect little shake-up in the rest of the field before the second debate next month.
“The electorate is going to take time to think through this,” said David Winston, a Republican pollster. “So I think everybody else is going to have to have patience.”
Former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush and Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker, the two candidates closest to Trump in early polls, escaped the first debate without damage, but also without any breakthrough moments.
Ohio Gov. John Kasich capitalized on a home-state crowd at the Cleveland debate to exceed expectations with an upbeat and optimistic performance. Florida Sen. Marco Rubio was praised for a substantive showing.
The candidates made their case before a prime-time television audience of 24 million people, making the debate the biggest nonsports cable broadcast history.
During the tumultuous 2012 Republican primary, a series of 13 debates before the kickoff Iowa caucuses kept the race in flux through its early months.
Four years later, party leaders have cut in half the total number of approved debates – just six before the Iowa caucuses in February.
So fewer debate chances for breakout moments or disqualifying stumbles. On top of that, Iowa canceled its famed summer straw poll – a death knell for candidates in the past.
The growth of super political action committees, which can collect unlimited donations, means fewer candidates are at risk of having to shut down because they are out of money.
“At this point in past cycles, there would be death watch coverage of a couple of the candidates,” said Fergus Cullen, the former New Hampshire Republican party chairman. “That’s not going to happen this time.”
Bush maintains a massive financial advantage over his rivals, having raised more than $114 million in the first half of the year between his campaign and super PAC. Despite that haul and his political pedigree, he has not broken away from the pack as some thought he might.
“You’ve got to work hard, you’ve got to earn it,” Bush said Friday during a campaign stop in New Hampshire. “A well-funded campaign is important – it’s better than a nonfunded campaign – but it’s not the only thing that matters.”
Bush allies privately concede he underperformed in the debate. He appeared even-keeled but unremarkable amid Trump fireworks and showed signs of nerves in the opening moments of his first debate in more than a decade.
Suggesting many voters still do not know Bush well, the son and brother of former presidents will devote much of the summer is to highlighting his accomplishments while governor of Florida, said campaign spokesman Tim Miller.
Bush will pay particular attention to New Hampshire, where his brand of politics is likely to play the best among the four early voting states. It’s also where he will face increased competition from Kasich, a lesser-known Republican presidential contender who exceeded modest expectations in the debate.
The next debate is Sept. 16 in California. Host CNN has said it will use a similar model to select the candidates on stage as Fox News did for the first one: a grouping of the top 10 candidates, according to public polling, and a second that includes lower-ranked candidates.
One of the biggest questions to emerge is whether Carly Fiorina, the only woman in the GOP race, will break into the top tier.
The former technology executive impressed many in the party with her sharp, forceful performance before the prime-time debate, but it’s not clear who she might dislodge from the top 10.