Game on: How each candidate can win first GOP debate

The names are finally known. 

The 10 participants in the first official Republican debate of the 2016 presidential race were announced Tuesday evening, after much speculation as to who would claim the final spot on stage.

In the end, Ohio Gov. John Kasich beat out former Texas Gov. Rick Perry for a place behind a podium. Perry, who also ran in 2012, will have to content himself with participation in an earlier forum with the other lower-ranking contenders.

Meanwhile, leading the polls — and set to get central billing in the main debate — are businessman Donald TrumpDonald TrumpClinton: Trump's election talk poses 'threat to our democracy' Clinton displays at Trump event raise eyebrows Clinton on Trump: 'I don’t even think about responding to him anymore' MORE, former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush and Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker.

The clash in Cleveland on Thursday evening is the subject of avid fascination, in part because of Trump’s presence but also because of the sheer number of contenders. No early debate has attracted such attention for several election cycles.

Here’s what each candidate needs to do — and where each one might falter — once the cameras start rolling.


Donald Trump

Where he stands: Several recent national polls show Trump is, for now, the clear front-runner — despite the fact that skepticism about him abounds, in the GOP establishment and elsewhere.

What he needs to do: The real estate mogul and TV personality has shown uncharacteristic signs of modesty in recent days, saying that he is not as skilled a debater as the other candidates. Such claims are a rare sign that Trump is, for once, following the standard political playbook, lowering expectations for his own performance. He was also relatively restrained during appearances on Sunday talk shows this week.

Strengths: If he avoids an obvious disaster, his brashness and élan could win over even more voters. 

Weaknesses: Trump’s rivals are desperate to burst his bubble. That means they might try to expose his vague policy positions, highlight his past donations to Democrats or point to his dismal poll ratings in hypothetical general election match-ups against Democratic front-runner Hillary Clinton.


Jeb Bush

Where he stands: Second in most national polls, the former Florida governor has solidified his status as the preferred candidate of the GOP establishment. He will be hoping that Trump will implode sooner or later and, when the smoke clears, the party will rally behind him.

What he needs to do: Bush’s appeal is built around the idea that he is a sober-minded, cerebral figure. He needs to show that maturity but also demonstrate he has some fire in his belly.

Strengths: Command of policy details is not expected to be a problem for Bush and, as the default front-runner if Trump falters, he can expect to get plenty of airtime.

Weaknesses: Bush can sometimes seem both professorial and brittle. He also last ran for election in 2002, so watch for signs of rustiness. Conservatives remain dubious about him.


Scott Walker

Where he stands: Until Trump upended the race, Walker was seen as one of the major conservative challengers to Bush. He still holds that status but, like so many of the other candidates, he has been pushed out of the spotlight by Trump.

What he needs to do: Reignite a sense of excitement around his candidacy to buttress the sense that he is truly a top-tier contender.

Strengths: One of Walker’s major calling cards is the fact that he has fought, and won, three major elections in recent years. He should be well practiced in the art of debating.

Weaknesses: Does Walker have the star power and dynamism for a winning presidential run? Doubts remain on that score, and a tepid performance could deepen them.


Mike Huckabee

Where he stands: Huckabee is known to believe he is not accorded the respect he deserves by GOP power players. He has a point — he is in fourth in the RealClearPolitics (RCP) national average.

What he needs to do: Boost his status as a conservative capable of expanding his support and really challenging for the nomination. A strong performance could also boost Huckabee’s fundraising capacity, which has long been a weak spot for the former Arkansas governor.

Strengths: Huckabee has traded for years on an avuncular personality that is coupled with strategic canniness. A broadcaster since his youth, Huckabee will be very comfortable on the stage.

Weakness: It’s not clear that any large segment of the GOP electorate really sees Huckabee, who ran in 2008, as a president-in-waiting.


Ben Carson

Where he stands: An early Carson boomlet appears to have receded somewhat, but the former neurosurgeon is still a player in the field, tied with Huckabee for fourth place in the RCP national average.

What he needs to do: Show his seriousness and, ideally, land a verbal punch or two on some of the candidates who are currently besting him in the polls.

Strengths: Carson’s political star first rose because of his capacity to channel grassroots Republican anger at the Obama administration. A memorable moment or two could propel him upward in the field.

Weakness: Carson, who has never before run for elected office, has a history of saying controversial things. Anything outlandish from him on Thursday could be a problem.


Ted Cruz

Where he stands: Cruz has not ignited the conservative base in the way that his supporters had hoped he would, but his standing has been increasing modestly of late.

What he needs to do: Have at least one standout moment. Cruz has been crowded out in the battle for conservative support by Walker and, to some degree, Huckabee and Carson. The Texas senator needs to make an impact to move out of the middle tier.

Strengths: A champion debater during his time at Princeton, Cruz has the right skills to shine.

Weaknesses: It’s common knowledge Cruz is not a particularly popular figure even with his GOP colleagues in Washington. Too strong a whiff of ego or irascibility could be off-putting to voters.


Marco Rubio

Where he stands: In some trouble. Rubio was widely seen as a top-tier candidate when he entered the race in April, but he was mired in seventh place in the RCP national average as of Tuesday afternoon, dropping down from third place at the end of June. His chances in the early states of Iowa and New Hampshire do not appear especially strong.

What he needs to do: Appear presidential, energetic and engaged. Rubio needs to remind Republican voters of just how strong a candidate he initially appeared to be.

Strengths: The Florida Republican is as charismatic a candidate as anyone in the GOP field. He can give an excellent stump speech and will hope to translate that into the debate.

Weaknesses: As a youthful-looking, first-term senator, Rubio is often compared to President Obama during his 2008 run. In a Republican primary, that’s not a helpful parallel. Any moment where Rubio appears to lack substance could fuel the critique.


Rand Paul

Where he stands: Closer to the margins of the GOP field than he would like. Eighth in the RCP national average, the idea that Paul could expand on the support enjoyed by his father, former Rep. Ron Paul (R-Texas), in his 2012 run is looking very questionable.

What he needs to do: Rally the libertarian base, while also fending off suggestions that his foreign policy views, in particular, are anathema to too many Republicans.

Strengths: The Kentucky senator has an eye for statements or actions that can capture media attention. He could deliver the kind of moment or sound bite that could live on for some days after the debate.

Weaknesses: On such a crowded stage — and performing at mediocre levels in polls — Paul needs to worry about the possibility of being sidelined, literally and figuratively.


Chris Christie

Where he stands: The days when Christie was seen as a major contender for the nomination are long gone.

What he needs to do: Find a way to make Republican voters give him serious consideration anew as a potential nominee.

Strengths: Christie is a strong debater, as was seen in his clashes with the incumbent governor of New Jersey whom he ousted, Democrat Jon Corzine. His rambunctious personality could be well-suited to taking on Trump.

Weaknesses: Christie is mistrusted by many conservatives, and his extroversion can be off-putting to some.


John Kasich

Where he stands: Just high enough in the national polls to make it into the debate.

What he needs to do: Grab the spotlight and use it to make his case that he is among the more electable candidates in the field.

Strengths: Kasich, if he is on form on Thursday night, could appear an uncommonly sincere and empathic politician.

Weaknesses: Off his game, the Ohio governor can be both meandering and moody.