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What Rubio, Cruz need to do to beat Trump

The Republican presidential candidates not named Donald Trump have finally received the memo that they don't have much time to stop his juggernaut race to the GOP nomination. While Senators Marco Rubio and Ted Cruz finally took the gloves off last week and stepped up their attacks on the New York billionaire, they're still making a stunning mistake.

Simply put, they're forgetting to bring the candy. By that, I mean that every winning candidate since the beginning of democracy has always offered the voters something that at least looks like a handout.

Deserved or not deserved, people like getting something from their current or prospective political leaders. "Quid pro Quo" is an ancient phrase for a reason. It's worked for a long time. And to beat Trump, someone in the GOP field needs to combine the "get tough" persona with a little something for the people to put in their pockets.

Journalists in the media filing center watch as Republican U.S. presidential candidates (L-R) Senator Marco Rubio, businessman Donald Trump and Senator Ted Cruz participate in the debate sponsored by CNN for the 2016 Republican U.S. presidential candidates in Houston, Texas February 25, 2016.
Richard Carson | Reuters
Journalists in the media filing center watch as Republican U.S. presidential candidates (L-R) Senator Marco Rubio, businessman Donald Trump and Senator Ted Cruz participate in the debate sponsored by CNN for the 2016 Republican U.S. presidential candidates in Houston, Texas February 25, 2016.

Democrats get this, have always gotten this, and they certainly get it now with candidate Bernie Sanders offering everything from free college to dirt cheap prescription drugs and Hillary Clinton scrambling to match every one of his promised giveaways.

Traditional Republican fiscal conservatism message has always made it tougher for its candidates to play Santa. Yet the most successful GOP contenders seem to find a way to squeeze in some giveaways. Ronald Reagan was the best at this, brushing back the "voodoo economics" attacks and the voters ate up his promises of big tax cuts and massive buildups in defense spending. But Reagan's brand of candy is 36 years old and it's time for something new and improved.

So here are three specific and conservative-friendly spending proposals that would work for the GOP primaries and beyond:

1. Give the troops a raise...a BIG one

Democrats poll well when they browbeat private business owners and demand $15/hour minimum wages for fast food workers. But that's nothing compared to what a Republican could reap from pushing for a significant raise for our fighting men and women.

Americans identify with the troops and appreciate their service and sacrifice much more than the people working at Burger King. And calling for more pay for our service members is more politically immune to conservative calls for more fiscal restraint than any other spending program out there.

One caveat: you can't be cheap about this.

For the last several years, the Obama administration has handed our troops insulting pay raises including this year's 1.3 percent increase. To really get some attention, you have to promise a 10 percent raise or more not unlike the 11 percent and 14 percent back-to-back raises President Reagan handed the troops in 1981 and 1982. Promoted properly, this proposal should be the centerpiece of any winning Republican campaign for the White House.

2. Cut public transportation fares...a LOT

Think about it, almost every welfare program essentially pays people not to work. Whether the recipient wants to work or not, the benefits only come as long as he or she doesn't attain a certain level of income.

But what about the people who do want to work, and do have a job, but take a serious bite out of their paychecks just to get to work?

Several recent studies show that the poorer you are in America, the more likely it is that you face a costlier and longer commute. Israel just realized a great way to make welfare more "pro-work" was to cut public transit fares by about 15 percent. A smart GOP candidate can simultaneously speak up for those workers and bash all the other ineffective forms of welfare by promising to take money from those failing programs and shift them into paying for caps on public transit fares in every major U.S. city.

This proposal would take a lot more hits from fiscal conservatives and libertarians to be sure, but it's the kind of election year candy that most voters would like. Oh, and it also might really boost the economy.

3. Fix the roads...

The news media has succeeded in falsely portraying most Republicans as opposing a decent American infrastructure. What Republicans oppose is overpaying for so-called infrastructure bills that include plenty of items that have nothing to do with infrastructure. But you'd be very hard pressed to find any American voter who doesn't have a legitimate complaint about his or her local roads, bridges, or airport.

Promising to fix those roads, bridges, airports only and vowing not to use the public's money for new projects and pork is a winning message even during the remainder of the GOP primaries. Hijacking the Democrats' failed "shovel ready" promises from 2009 would be the icing on the cake.

Commentary by Jake Novak, the supervising producer of "Power Lunch" and former supervising producer of "The Kudlow Report." Prior to joining CNBC, Novak co-created and oversaw the "Varney and Company" program on FOX Business Network along with anchor Stuart Varney. He also spent seven years at CNN, producing financial news programs including launching the successful "In the Money" show with anchor Jack Cafferty.

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