Essential Politics: Smaller debate stage awaits GOP

Essential Politics: Smaller debate stage awaits GOP

I’m Christina Bellantoni, the Essential Politics host today. Let’s get started.

The latest Republican presidential debate plays out tonight in South Carolina, a critical early primary state, and comes at a time when Donald Trump is facing his highest-profile attacks to date.

The forum will be a smaller one, with Sen. Rand Paul and businesswoman Carly Fiorina ousted from participation. It is being held two days after President Obama went after Trump during the State of the Union and after the state’s Republican governor needled the GOP front-runner in her response to the presidential address.

Trump has thrived amid previous attacks, and there is little to suggest the latest rhetorical scuffles will do anything to damage the iconoclastic candidate’s lead in national polls, writes Noah Bierman. But it’s one of the last chances for the other six people on stage to make their case that they are the best Trump alternative. Here are Michael Finnegan’s five things to watch.

Mike Memoli and Finnegan took a look at Obama’s evolution of thought on the real estate mogul as a political figure. They set the scene using an anecdote from last year’s White House Correspondents' Assn. dinner:

Last April, with the race for president still far away, President Obama used his speech at the annual White House Correspondents' Assn. dinner to poke fun at some likely Republican contenders, needling Jeb Bush’s efforts to court Latinos and Ted Cruz’s denial of climate change.

"And," he added caustically, "Donald Trump is here. Still."

Jumbo screens showed the billionaire businessman waving affably from a back table. But the idea of a Trump candidacy was the punch line, and the Washington media and political elites packed in the ballroom laughed in appreciation.

Obama no longer finds it funny. His final State of the Union address Tuesday night amounted to a vigorous — and frequently barbed — defense of his record and his legacy in the face of Trump’s unexpected rise to the top of the Republican nomination race.

On the Democratic side, Evan Halper and Chris Megerian see Hillary Clinton scrambling to regain her momentum. And that’s found Clinton taking a feistier — and riskier — approach to confronting rival Bernie Sanders, the socialist from Vermont once looked upon by Clinton operatives as a model adversary: too far outside the mainstream to pose a real threat, but popular enough to give the appearance of a real race, they write.

In Iowa and New Hampshire, Clinton finds herself facing a very real risk of defeat in both places, a turn of events that would have seemed impossible one year ago. If she loses, Democrats could face a drawn out, and nasty, fight similar to the Clinton-Obama battle in 2008.

Follow the day’s campaign action and join us for the debate on Trail Guide.


Few political brands in California are as potent as the 1978 landmark tax initiative, Proposition 13. And defenders of the law’s limits on property taxes usually will defend it to the bitter end.

But one idea moving forward in Sacramento would make a tweak to Prop. 13, a change focused on how "ownership" of property is defined. Patrick McGreevy writes about the bill that won approval by a state Senate committee on Wednesday, one even supported by the Howard Jarvis Taxpayers Assn. It seeks to limit corporate ownership schemes like the one The Times first reported on in 2013.


Meantime, a legislative committee has killed an effort to allow military and overseas voters the chance to cast a ballot by email or other online system.

Christine Mai-Duc reports that critics feared it would be a trial run for some kind of broad online voting effort in the future.

A reminder that you can track all of the political action from Sacramento and across the state daily on our Essential Politics news feed.


I’m taking a short vacation ahead of the Iowa caucuses, so I’ll be back on Jan. 25. David Lauter will return Friday with his look at the week in national politics, and Sacramento bureau chief John Myers will be your guide next week, although we will not publish on Monday.


-- Sarah Wire talked with Trenna Meins, whose husband was killed in San Bernardino on Dec. 2. Meins used her ticket to the State of the Union to press lawmakers on gun control.

-- Rep. Norma Torres (D-Pomona), who was born in Guatemala, is part of the presidential delegation to Guatemala to attend the inauguration of incoming president Jimmy Morales Thursday. The delegation led by Vice President Joe Biden includes U.S. Ambassador to Guatemala Todd Robinson and Homeland Security Secretary Jeh Johnson.

-- Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti appointed his former rival Wendy Greuel to the city's Homeless Services Authority's Board of Commissioners.

-- State legislators are getting excited, or depressed, about Tuesday’s big news from the NFL of one, possibly two, teams moving to Los Angeles. Assemblywoman Autumn Burke (D-Marina del Rey), tweeted out her excitement given that she represents Inglewood, home of the proposed stadium. Meantime, Assemblywoman Lorena Gonzalez (D-San Diego) made it clear in her tweet reply to Assemblyman Ian Calderon (D-Whittier) how she felt about the potential of the San Diego Chargers leaving: "Boo," though she adds a lot more o’s!

-- Reps. Eric Swalwell (D-Dublin), Karen Bass (D-Los Angeles), Pete Aguilar (D-Redlands) and Ted Lieu (D-Torrance) are scheduled to hold a forum for college students at 10 a.m. Thursday at UCLA. Swalwell, the youngest member of California’s delegation, leads the Future Forum, a group of young House members.


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