Frank Pignanelli & LaVarr Webb: National, local elections offer chance for predictions

National and local politics are offering Utahns tasty summer treats. We suggest our favorite political popsicles.

After the first big GOP debate Thursday night, is Donald Trump still atop the Republican pack, or is he in trouble?

Pignanelli: “There’s just one present under the Christmas tree … it’s all a columnist could ever hope for: the first Republican debate!” — Eugene Robinson, The Washington Post

Although political observers — and especially me — disdain Trump, we were grateful for his performance (no other word describes it) on the debate stage. He transformed a potential snooze fest into a frolicking cage match. Trump did not retreat, and he alone adhered to the important rule of political discourse: answer the question you want to answer, not the one actually asked.

Trump incurred serious blows from the debate panel. If he continues a top-tier position in polling after this roasting, national Republicans have a serious dilemma with the brazen billionaire, and his possible third party candidacy.

Webb: Trump crashed and burned. He can’t handle the big time. He was his usual pompous, arrogant and bombastic self. He would be a disaster as the Republican nominee and a bigger disaster as president. He’s probably the only Republican candidate who would make a lot of Republicans vote for Hillary Clinton.

Who were other winners and losers in the debates?

Pignanelli: Debate sponsor FoxNews essentially held the first party primary by culling the herd. The well-organized event firmly established the network’s role in determining the GOP nominee. Sen. Rand Paul feistily pushed against Trump, Chris Christie and others. Many mainstream Republicans viewed Jeb Bush as "presidential." Pundits are praising Carly Fiona (who dominated the second tier debate), Sen. Marco Rubioand Gov. John Kasich. Hillary Clinton fared well because most jabs against her were forgettable. Candidates were well prepared, played to their base and avoided any fatal mistakes.

Many debaters threw the usual cheap shots against lobbyists, claiming my profession is to blame for government ills. (This hypocrisy — which extends to both parties — does not prevent them from begging my colleagues for contributions.)

Webb: I’m not looking for ideological purity or who can best pander to the far right. I’m looking for a conservative candidate, an adult in the room, who can win support of mainstream Americans and beat Hillary Clinton.

I saw a number of candidates who fit that model, among them Bush, Kasich, Christie, Fiorina, Rubio and Scott Walker (although Walker’s extreme no-exceptions position on abortion is a problem). They demonstrated leadership, poise and a strong grasp of the issues. I think the race is between those six. Any of them would be a far better president than Clinton.

Among the 16 non-Trump candidates, no clear star emerged, although Fiorina probably helped herself the most Thursday night, jumping from the bottom tier into the top tier of candidates. She was terrific. Bush was a winner because he held his own. With a lot of money and staying power, all he had to do was show up and avoid mistakes.

Bobby Jindal and Rick Perry did OK in the early debate. Mike Huckabee and Ben Carson were impressive, but won’t win the nomination. Ted Cruzpandered too much to the far right and has a very narrow base. Clinton would love to run against him. I like Lindsay Graham and George Pataki, but they won’t emerge from the third tier. Jim Gilmore, Rand Paul and Rick Santorum are capable guys, but will end up as also-rans.

The municipal primary election is Tuesday. What should we be watching for in the Salt Lake mayoral race?

Pignanelli: Politicos are scrutinizing the race for multiple curiosities. Incumbent Ralph Becker was in good shape until the police chief debacle, which moved a chunk of his voters to “undecided.” Can Jackie Biskupski claim them, or has the last-minute push by Becker stopped the hemorrhaging? The Capital City has never experienced local PACs spending gobs of money to influence municipal elections.

But this year moneyed interests — tied to billboard advertisers and developers — are carpet-bombing against Becker.

Many pundits are predicting a primary victory for Biskupski, guaranteeing a hotly contested general election. The real nerds (like us) will be analyzing various results: voter turnout for the first all-mail election, the performance by each candidate in the different districts, post-election surveys (since exit polls will not exist). Elections are changing in Utah, and what happens this year in Salt Lake City as to voter turnout, social media tools, SuperPACs and other new campaign tools, will signal trends for 2016.

Webb: Becker and Biskupski will continue into the final election. Becker hasn’t had a great election year so far, and it could get worse if Biskupski wins or comes close in the primary. Becker’s challenge is that the votes that go to the other three candidates in the primary will likely go to Biskupski in the final election.

Still, Becker will have a lot more money and he’s a strong grass-roots campaigner. He also has solid support among key business leaders. He still has a fighting chance to win a third term.