The GOP debate: 5 things to watch – Politico
CLEVELAND — It’s one of the most anticipated Republican primary debates in decades, an unpredictable 10-way clash that includes a son and brother of presidents, three sitting senators, three sitting governors and one smash-mouth real estate mogul.
By the time they take the stage Thursday evening, the White House prospects and their teams of experienced advisers will have spent hours mapping the numerous scenarios that could play out. Candidates will have pored over thick briefing books. And the moderators, with their desire to create compelling TV for a nationwide audience, have taken their own steps to ensure that the event has no shortage of conflict and tension.
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In interviews conducted in the final days leading up to the showdown, more than a dozen top party officials, operatives and aides to the Republican presidential candidates sketched out the dynamics they expect to shape a dramatic night.
Here is POLITICO’s look at what to watch for the first Republican primary debate.
The Trump scouting report
Since entering the race this summer, billionaire businessman Donald Trump has mixed it up with many of his GOP rivals, establishing himself as the brashest and most unpredictable candidate in the field.
Yet despite the propensity for hurling insults, several campaigns say they’re expecting a very different Trump on the debate stage. Advisers to several candidates said they’ve been closely examining Trump’s caustic statements and have concluded his bomb-throwing fits a pattern: He’s at his most inflammatory — for example, giving out Lindsey Graham’s cellphone number, making fun of Rick Perry’s glasses or criticizing John McCain’s past as a prisoner of war — when he’s responding to an attack against him. Graham, Perry and McCain had all gone after Trump aggressively before he turned his fire on them.
If he’s not put on the defensive, Trump — who recently said that he hopes the debate stays “on a high level” — the advisers think a less belligerent figure will emerge.
Debate host Fox News, however, is preparing for the worst. One top official at the network said Baier, one of the debate’s moderators, had privately expressed concern that Trump would be a challenge to control and that time limits on answers would need to be rigidly enforced.
In any case, several contenders have already talked through contingency plans if Trump does pull the pin on the grenade.
Their thinking goes like this: With relatively little time to speak — the entire program will last for two hours, and there will be 10 candidates onstage — each contender will need to make the most of his time in front of the camera. And with most candidates still introducing themselves to the primary electorate, it’s important to present themselves in a positive light rather than a negative one. So that means avoiding trading too many punches.
One adviser to a Republican hopeful suggested the following template for responding to a Trump broadside: Hit back forcefully but quickly, and then pivot to a positive message focused on selling yourself.
Those close to Jeb Bush — a favorite Trump punching bag — say he has little interest in getting in a scuffle. One Bush adviser said he intended to present himself as the “grownup in charge.”
Jeb vs. the world
Aside from Trump, who by virtue of his standing in the polls literally will occupy the center stage position, the brightest spotlight will be on Bush. And to the former Florida governor’s rivals, the biggest question is whether he’ll stumble.
While Bush is typically more at ease with himself than many of his opponents, he can be awkward and uncomfortable when put on the spot. In recent days, advisers to one candidate examined a 2013 interview Bush gave to NBC’s “Meet the Press” and concluded that one way to get under Bush’s skin is to compare him to his Florida protégé Marco Rubio.
Then there’s the rust factor. While many of Bush’s rivals — nearly all of whom are sitting governors or senators — have recent experience on debate stages, he doesn’t: Bush hasn’t faced an election since 2002. Bush aides say they recognize the problem and have taken steps to fix it. They recently brought on Beth Myers and Peter Flaherty, both of whom helped Mitt Romney prepare for the 2012 debates, to assist Bush.
He still has a ways to go. On Tuesday, Bush caused a furor by saying at a Christian conservative-themed forum that, “I’m not sure we need half a billion dollars for women’s health issues,” a statement that Democrats immediately seized on and left Republicans shaking their heads at the unforced and undisciplined error.
Bush in an unenviable position, his rivals say, of facing sky-high expectations and a stable of foes with an interest in dinging him up.
“He has the most to lose, and he has to be very careful,” said Saul Anuzis, a former Michigan Republican Party chairman who is advising Ted Cruz. “The stakes are very high. He’s the prohibitive front-runner.”
The education of Scott Walker
Scott Walker has a lot to prove on Thursday — and he knows it.
During a trip to New York City last week, the Wisconsin governor spent much of the day in debate prep with a group of advisers that included Mari Will, the wife of conservative columnist George Will, and campaign manager Rick Wiley. Walker has been criticized for being overly scripted and lacking policy expertise — he bobbled several times when discussing foreign policy and national security issues early in the campaign — and is under pressure to show that he can go toe-to-toe with his rivals.
Walker’s advisers say not to expect anything flashy, just a solid, consistent performance that shows he’s ready to talk about complex issues like foreign affairs — an area he’s been boning up on with the help of former Missouri Sen. Jim Talent, who’s been advising him.
The governor also has a blueprint for dealing with Trump, who has accused the Wisconsin governor of having a less-than-stellar record of accomplishment. Walker has told advisers that he intends to respond to any bombs lobbed his way by acknowledging that Trump is speaking to a core anger in the electorate and then saying that he’s best equipped to address those frustrations. The goal: Turn an attack from Trump into an opportunity to win over the billionaire’s supporters.
Christie vs. Rand
If any two candidates seem destined to tangle, it’s Chris Christie and Rand Paul.
Christie has turned the Kentucky senator into a favorite target by criticizing him as too dovish — the former prosecutor is particularly focused on Paul’s opposition to the PATRIOT Act — and those close to the New Jersey governor say it’s a good bet he’ll go after him again on Thursday evening. Doing so would establish Christie’s hawkish voice, which he’s been working hard to cultivate.
A straightforward attack would also reinforce the the central selling point of Christie’s long-shot candidacy: that he’s a plainspoken, hard-charging figure who won’t hesitate to pull his punches.
Paul’s advisers say he’s ready for the fight. There’s nothing more they’d like, they say, than for Paul to have the opportunity to present himself as a mature, thoughtful figure who’d adopt a responsible approach to military intervention abroad.
Moderators itching for a fight
Many campaigns are convinced that Fox News — the Roger Ailes-overseen network that excels at turning politics into high-octane entertainment — is intent on creating a confrontation-rich spectacle.
What gave it away: Prior to the debate, each candidate was asked to record a video that would be played at the debate. In the video, the candidate would ask a question that would be posed to each of their rivals. Advisers to two campaigns said it’s not clear whether Fox News will ultimately use the videos. But the network’s intentions, they said, were clear: Generate conflict.
“Anytime you have candidates do the questioning, you have the potential for fireworks,” said a senior adviser for one campaign. “What do you think you’re going to ask? ‘What is your favorite book?’”
There’s also the matter of the hosts involved. The debate will be moderated by Megyn Kelly, Bret Baier and Chris Wallace: All three are known for their combative personalities and for their desire to pin politicians down. “Megyn Kelly did not get to be where she is by being soft on anybody,” said the adviser.
Republican Party officials say they’re fully expecting a dramatic show — and that they have no problem with it. Driving up excitement for the primary contest, they argue, was their hope all along.
“It should be a mix-it-up,” said Steve Duprey, a Republican National Committee member from New Hampshire who played a key role in establishing the party’s new debate criteria. “It’s good for TV ratings, which is their goal, but it’s also good for voter interest.”
For the individual candidates, the question is how to prepare for potentially confrontational hosts. One candidate was said to be getting ready by fielding tough questions from advisers and being pressed to give precise answers in which he was given little wiggle room. The hope, the adviser said, was that by preparing for the worst they’d be able to handle whatever comes their way in the debate.