Tonight’s Republican presidential debate will almost certainly be the most watched primary debate in television history. With that many eyeballs on the 10 men who will take the debate stage in Cleveland, the stakes for every one of them are remarkably high.
Because there are so many candidates and so many storylines — plus Donald Trump! — I thought I would try to boil down the key questions surrounding tonight’s proceedings. Here are the 11 questions that (I hope) tonight’s debate will answer.
Trump has soared to the top of the heap by a brashness rarely seen in politics. In the run-up to tonight’s debate, he’s promised to play nice. “I am going to keep it on a high level,” Trump told the Post on Wednesday. “I have a lot of respect for them.” But, this is Donald Trump we are talking about. And there is NO chance that if one of the other nine candidates attacks him, he won’t attack back twice as hard. How does that Trump attack play? And how often does it happen? It’s possible that if multiple candidates go after Trump, he could become a sympathetic figure (gulp) for the audience. Remember, too, that Trump is the most seasoned television performer on the stage; he may never have debated before but he knows what makes good television.
Trump will be at the center of this debate, figuratively and literally. (His poll lead means he will have the center podium on the stage.) So, it makes sense that a candidate trailing in the polls might want to go after him — in hopes that a fight might be good publicity. But, who? Chris Christie seems like a likely choice due to his whole tell-it-like-it-is thing. Jeb Bush could go for the “Sister Souljah” moment by casting Trump as unserious and denouncing his views on immigration. Rand Paul, who has watched his standing in polls crumble of late, had built a reputation earlier this year for going after anyone and everyone running against him so he could be a darkhorse pick to attack Trump. The only one of the nine who we know won’t attack Trump is Ted Cruz, who sees the possibility of hoovering up Trump voters if and when The Donald exits the race.
Everyone focuses on the 10 candidates on the stage. But, as we’ve seen throughout debate history, the moderators play a massive role in who wins and who loses. Tonight’s trio of Megyn Kelly, Bret Baier and Chris Wallace have all done this before but never with this many candidates and never with Trump. “One of the biggest frustrations to me in this process is, it’s not like when I anchor the Kelly File, I can’t interrupt them and say ‘you’re not answering the question, this is what I want you to answer,'” Kelly said Wednesday. The debate format is strict — 60 second answers from the candidates with 30 second follow-ups and rebuttals. It’s a guarantee that the candidates will push those boundaries. How aggressive are the moderators in keeping them within the rules? How do they referee the inevitable back and forths between the candidates? How much real-time fact checking do they do? And on which candidates?
The former Florida governor hasn’t been on a debate stage since his 2002 gubernatorial campaign, which was something of a cakewalk. He’s shaken off most of the rust on the campaign trail but debates are another animal. Especially debates with nine other people on stage with you. Bush is, obviously, used to the spotlight due to his last name and isn’t likely to be all that nervous. But, can he do the thinking on his feet necessary to shine in a debate setting? And, if he gets attacked — by Trump or anyone else — does he respond or stay above the fray under the belief that he is the race’s true frontrunner?
Remember back to the Republican primary debates in 2008. Huckabee was the story of those events, standing out time and again as a disarmingly funny and appealing figure effectively selling a compassionate conservative message. The debates turned Huckabee from an also-ran into a major player in that race. He’s been overlooked so far in this campaign — bursting through the Trump noise only when he made his “ovens” comment about the Iran deal. But, if past is prologue, he’s likely to distinguish himself tonight.
If you don’t already know it, Ted Cruz was a champion college debater. That bit of biographical information sets expectations extremely high for the Texas Senator’s performance tonight . And, my guess is that Cruz, who is an able TV presence, will meet them. The only concern for Cruz is the number of people on stage. Does his past debate training prepare him for such a melee? Or will he be like Andre the Giant in “Princess Bride”?
The biggest knock on the Wisconsin governor in the donor world and political chattering class is that he might not be up to a race of this magnitude. As in, when the big lights come on, Walker shrinks. Reports from the campaign trail suggest he is getting better as a candidate and the debate tonight affords Walker a chance to prove his doubters wrong. A strong performance firmly establishes him as a top-tier candidate. A shrinking or underwhelming performance keeps the “Is he ready for this?” storyline alive.
I have long said that the Florida Senator has the most natural talent of anyone in the GOP field. But, talent alone isn’t enough. You have to actually perform. Just ask Kwame Brown.
Results for Rubio on a stage this big are mixed. His speech at the Republican National Convention was outstanding; his 2013 State of the Union response was shaky – and thirsty. Which Rubio shows up tonight?
The Ohio governor, quietly, has had a nice last month or so. He and his campaign team timed his entry into the race just right; he got enough of a polling boost to take the 10th debate slot away from former Texas Gov. Rick Perry. And Kasich should have a slight advantage over the other nine men on stage given that he’s playing a bit of a home game in Cleveland. He’s also not totally unfamiliar with the big stage; he ran briefly for president in 1999, served as chairman of the (relatively) high profile House Budget Committee and has now been governor of a large state for two terms. The question for Kasich is whether, pushed all the way to the side of the debate stage, he can inject himself into the main thrust of the conversation enough to make a mark.
Christie feels like he is barely part of the 2016 conversation at the moment — a remarkable reality for a guy who, if he had run in 2012, would have been the co-frontrunner for the nomination (at worst). He needs a spark badly. Tonight’s debate may be his best chance to begin the long march back to (or close to) the top tier. Christie has shown an ability to think on his feet and flashed a good sense of humor in the past. Can he do it when the whole of the Republican world is watching? And, can he navigate the very fine line between straight talk and bluster/bullying?
In a two-hour debate with 10 candidates and three moderators, don’t expect a lot of meaty policy discussions. This debate — and, really, all debates — will be defined by the one or two “moments” of the two hours. That can be a mistake (“oops”), a nasty back and forth or a really good one-liner. Every one of the 10 candidates will be fully prepped with a good zinger or two. But, a) will they find a place to use it? b) will they get it out perfectly? and c) will the audience react the right way?
God I love debates.