Debate night: Five things to watch

Debate night: Five things to watch

It’s showtime for the Republican presidential field. 

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Anticipation has been building for weeks around Thursday’s 9 p.m. debate hosted by Fox News. 

The mix of 10 candidates’ personalities onstage in Cleveland, Ohio, is set to be a perfect storm for some testy exchanges, revealing moments and, potentially, embarrassing gaffes over the course of two hours. 

Here are five key things to watch for in the debate.

1. Can Donald TrumpDonald John TrumpNFL freezes policy barring players from protesting during anthem McConnell spokesman on Putin visit: 'There is no invitation from Congress' Petition urges University of Virginia not to hire Marc Short MORE deliver?

The billionaire real estate mogul has been trying to lower expectations ahead of the debate, saying last week that he has “no idea” how he’ll perform. But if there’s one predictable thing about Donald Trump, it’s his flair for the unpredictable.  

Trump will be under scrutiny for how much he adheres to policy arguments instead of personal attacks. The debate will serve as a test of his ability to convince voters and pundits that he can appear presidential and outline concrete policy positions. 

At the same time, many people — especially Democrats — are tuning in to the debate because they simply hope the former “Apprentice” star will put on a good show.  

2. How will everyone onstage handle Trump?

With a few exceptions, the rest of the GOP presidential field has so far avoided directly criticizing the current frontrunner. But other candidates may be desperate to push Trump out of the No. 1 slot after weeks atop the polls.   

The other nine debaters, eager to showcase their own candidacies, may try to shine light on Trump’s vague policy positions and past ties to Democrats, including the Clintons. Likewise, watch for how the others react if Trump hurls personal invectives at them. 

Look also for how the three moderators, Fox News hosts Megyn Kelly, Bret Baier and Chris Wallace, handle the Trump factor. Trump could very well choose to ignore time limits and other directions from them. 

3. Can any of the lower-polling candidates break through?

An unexpectedly good performance from any of the candidates ranking lower in national polls could turn into a breakout moment.  

Before Trump, New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie — who barely made prime-time debate — is viewed as a potentially entertaining addition due to his blunt, brash style. Ohio Gov. John Kasich, who nearly missed the cut for the debate in his home state, will also try to raise his profile. 

Thursday’s event could give former national debate champion Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas) a chance to shine. Cruz will need to make an impact in order to appeal to more conservatives, who are divided among Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker, former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee and Ben Carson. 

The other two senators who will be onstage, Sens. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) and Rand Paul (R-Ky.), have been lagging in the polls recently and will be looking for moments to stand out as well. 

4. Can Jeb Bush come across as his own man? 

Bush, the current establishment favorite, ranks second in most national polls behind Trump. Still, he has a ways to go in persuading Republican primary voters he should be the nominee.

Anti-establishment conservatives remain wary of Bush, who has struggled at times to distinguish himself from his brother and father, both former presidents. Deep understanding of policy details is not expected to be a problem for Bush, who has built a reputation for being cerebral.

But he will have to show he can avoid unforced gaffes, such as the ones that have dogged him in recent weeks, over the course of the long and potentially unpredictable debate.  

For example, Bush said he “misspoke” after he remarked earlier this week, “I’m not sure we need half a billion dollars for women’s health issues.” In mid-July, he generated unwanted headlines when he suggested that Americans “need to work longer hours.” 

5. Will the debate live up to the hype? 

Despite the wall-to-wall coverage leading up to the debate, mostly fueled by curiosity over what Trump will do, there’s a chance it won’t be the fireworks show many political junkies hope it will be.

The candidates might not want to turn too negative at a debate more than a year out from the general election and nearly six months before primary voters head to the polls. Trump might moderate his behavior and not call anyone names.

Plus the sheer number of people onstage — which would have been nearly twice as large had Fox allowed every Republican running for president to participate — will limit the amount of time for any candidate to dominate the discussion. 

But the three veteran Fox anchors moderating the debate have shown in past GOP candidate forums that they are capable of asking tough, revealing questions. And if Trump acts like his typical unbridled self, viewers may be in for an entertaining night of television.