Thursday marks the true opening salvo in the GOP presidential race, as the top 10 candidates are slated to face off in the long-awaited Fox News debate.
Recent primary debates have produced a share of race-defining moments: Mitt Romney’s $10,000 bet over whether the former Massachusetts governor was for individual health insurance mandates; then-Texas Gov. Rick Perry’s “oops” moment when he forgot one of the federal agencies he would eliminate as president; and then-Illinois Sen. Barack Obama’s quip that Hillary Clinton is “nice enough.”
But this debate includes one major factor not seen in past debates: Donald TrumpDonald TrumpIntel Dem: Nunes 'sacrificed the good name' of committee with Trump briefing Report: Trump regrets backing health plan before pushing for tax reform Dem rep: 'We must pause the entire Trump agenda' until Russia investigation complete MORE.
The boisterous real estate magnate, who has been a walking headline since he jumped into the race in June, has exceeded expectations, rising to the top of polls for the last couple of weeks.
That will likely give him the right to stand center stage at the debates based on plans reported by Bloomberg last week. But what happens then is anybody’s guess: Will Trump draw a peppering of questions from moderators, attacks from other candidates or be ignored? What will he say?
“The expectation is that he is going to be a bull in a china shop, perhaps a lack of specifics on policy, perhaps flouting the debate rules, getting too personal on stage,” said Geoffrey Skelley, a political analyst with the University of Virginia Center for Politics.
“He needs to confound those expectations by having some substantive policy points on issues that are important to him, perhaps acting in a less abrasive manner than he’s well known for.”
Political junkies and experts believe Trump will bring his typical braggadocio to the debate stage despite their sentiment among Republicans that it makes him unelectable in a general election. Trump has been mum about his debate prep, telling CNN he doesn’t have a coach.
David Birdsell, a political science professor at Baruch College who has studied debates extensively, told The Hill that he doubts Trump’s performance will do anything to help his overall chances despite his current lead.
“If Donald Trump can come across as a sober, statesmanlike presence with a sound grasp of issues able to tap both populist outrage and have the best thinking of policy shops, he’ll have made a number of people take another look,” he said, immediately speculating that outcome would be unlikely.
The rest of the candidates will have to decide whether to tread carefully or jump into the ring against him.
For former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush, seen as the likely front-runner, that probably means standing his ground and sticking to his script, and not overly engaging with Trump.
“He’ll be dodging brick bats from Trump, and how he handles that will be of great interest to everybody,” Birdsell said.
“If he’s able to effectively craft a contrast between the rough and tumble populism and frank gaudy racism of Donald Trump with a much more sober, compelling vision of conservatism that has the ability to engage the interests of those far down on the economic ladder ... he’ll have done very well for himself.”
Other candidates toward the bottom of the polls may have to gang up on Trump in order to get a crack at the headlines.
But Sen. Ted Cruz will have a different calculation. The fiery Texas Republican is one of the only major candidates not to denounce Trump at one time or another, and Birdsell said that Trump’s antics have “out-bullhorned” him. That, he said, gives Cruz two options: set himself up as a more plausible version of Trump, or distance himself from the controversial poll leader.
Outside of the Trump calculation, the debate provides an important opportunity for two other top-tier candidates to shape their narratives: Gov. Scott Walker (Wis.) and Sen. Marco Rubio (Fla.). Both have high favorability ratings, but are still unknown to a large swath of the GOP electorate. That could change depending on their performances.
That idea of a blank slate also applies to Ben Carson, Birdsell said, because the former neurosurgeon has never run for office.
Fox hasn’t yet announced which polls it will use to decide the field, so it’s unclear who will round it out. Recent polling averages from RealClearPolitics show Trump, Walker, Bush, Rubio, former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee, Carson, Sen. Rand Paul (Ky.) and Cruz all above 5 percent and likely making the cut.
If Fox’s polls follow the RCP averages, Govs. John Kasich (Ohio) and Chris Christie (N.J.) would round out the top 10, with Perry, Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal and former Sen. Rick Santorum (Pa.) getting their national opportunity with the lower tier at 5 p.m.
Those who don’t make the cut, likely including Carly Fiorina and former Gov. George Pataki (N.Y.), and a possible addition of former Gov. Jim Gilmore (Va.) if he is included in enough polls to qualify, will also be part of the undercard event.
Missing the debate could have a significant impact on voters’ perception of the viability of candidates who have been around for some time, like Christie, Birdsell said.
“He’s been running unofficially for a long time, donors have taken a second look, in the negative sense, in investing in a Christie run,” he said.
“If he were to miss the debate, it would look very much like an indication that his ship has sailed and he should have run in 2012.”
That calculus would be different for Kasich, who announced his candidacy in late July.
Because the debate is still six months away from the Iowa caucuses, a failure to make it on the primetime stage may not be the official kiss of death. But since it provides such a clear stratification of the field, a failure to place within the top 10 comes with significantly more of a cost than in previous election cycles.
“Not making the first debate could create questions about whether these campaigns can continue,” Skelley said.
“I don’t expect to hear anybody dropping out a couple weeks from now, but given the sizes of the two audiences, the primetime debate is going to dwarf the [earlier debate], it’s pretty bad if you get stuck in the second debate.”