Five tips from Trump's fallen rivals on how to debate him

Five tips from Trump's fallen rivals on how to debate him
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Take it from those who took on Donald TrumpDonald TrumpHouse votes to condemn Chinese government over Hong Kong Former Vice President Walter Mondale dies at age 93 White House readies for Chauvin verdict MORE in the primary debates — it’s not easy to debate him. 

The political neophyte turned GOP presidential nominee vanquished 16 Republican rivals by exceeding expectations on the debate stage, where he offered an unpredictable mix of personal attacks and controversial claims. 


Trump is a relatively inexperienced debater compared to Democratic nominee Hillary ClintonHillary Diane Rodham ClintonPelosi on power in DC: 'You have to seize it' Cuba readies for life without Castro Chelsea Clinton: Pics of Trump getting vaccinated would help him 'claim credit' MORE, but he can't be underestimated.

Here's what a handful of top aides to Trump’s primary rivals say they learned from debating — and losing — to The Donald.

Be authentic, not overly scripted 

Carly Fiorina was the only woman who ran against Trump in the Republican primaries.

She and Trump feuded bitterly, with Trump jabbing during an interview with “Rolling Stone” that the onetime Hewlett-Packard CEO didn’t have the “face of our next president.”

“Look at that face! Would anyone vote for that?” Trump told the magazine while watching Fiorina on the news.

“She’s a woman, and I’m not s’posedta [sic] to say bad things, but really, folks, come on, are we serious?” Rolling Stone quoted Trump as saying.

Trump’s comments were widely viewed as a sexist attack on Fiorina’s looks, and her campaign knew it would come up during the debates.

Fiorina’s team didn’t plan a scripted response, said campaign manager Frank Sadler, and instead trusted Fiorina to land a blow from the heart.

She didn’t disappoint when CNN moderator Jake Tapper asked about Trump’s Rolling Stone comments.

“I think women all over this country heard very clearly what Mr. Trump said,” Fiorina shot back, as CNN showed a side-by-side of a calm Fiorina with a fidgeting Trump. 

Fiorina got great reviews for the performance and short-lived bump in polls, which showed the importance of at least looking authentic and tough against Trump.

“We believed our most effective way to attack that would be to let Carly be Carly in the moment. If we had scripted it, it probably would have gone poorly,” Sadler said. 

In Clinton’s case, he said, “She’s got to be herself in those moments. ... If that comes across scripted with Trump, that’s where you get into real trouble.” 

That may not be easy for Clinton, who admits to being less comfortable with the “public” part of public service. 

At the same time, she’s shown herself to be a good debater, and she kept her cool and stayed on message during her inaugural Senate campaign when Republican Rick Lazio memorably got into her personal space.

Push back, but don’t get down into mud 

The primary debates proved Trump is not afraid to get down and dirty. 

His insults left many of his rivals looking bad and struggling for a comeback. 

Mike DuHaime, a longtime aide to New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, specifically noted Trump’s famous jabs about former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush’s “low energy,” from which Bush struggled to rebound.

“You have to be very direct about confronting” those types of attacks, DuHaime said.

In Clinton’s case, attacks related to her husband's marital infidelities, her health or decades-old controversies could come up. Or there could be another surprise.

“He may say something to her face that no one else has ever said to her face,” DuHaime said. “People may have said it behind her back, but he may say it to her face in front of tens of millions of people.”

Sadler said Clinton will have to show an ability to push back.

“The ability to counterpunch is a very useful tactic against Donald Trump, and it’s helpful if the comments he’s made are like what he said about Carly: things that don’t ring well with the American people,” Sadler said. 

Alice Stewart, who advised Sen. Ted CruzRafael (Ted) Edward Cruz15 Senate Republicans pledge to oppose lifting earmark ban 'Real Housewives of the GOP' — Wannabe reality show narcissists commandeer the party Is the antidote to bad speech more speech or more regulation? MORE's (R-Texas) White House bid after working with former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee's, said the best way to handle Trump is to not resort to insults. The Republican nominee is likely to win such a battle. 

“Don’t go out there and criticize him. Show the contrast on the issues and don’t make it about personal insults. I think that served Ted very well,” she said.  

She believes Cruz hurt Trump by turning a question about whether he could match Trump’s tough talk on immigration into sharp criticism of Trump’s past donations to Clinton and other Democrats during an early March debate right before the Wisconsin primary.

“He was very familiar with Trump’s record, and when he had the opportunity, he called him out as someone without a conservative record,” she said.  

Cruz ended up crushing Trump in the Wisconsin primary.

Lean on your policy strength 

Few know more about public policy than Clinton, an advantage she holds over Trump that gives her an edge in the debate.

The one-on-one atmosphere only strengthens that advantage, Stewart said, as Clinton is “able to elaborate and flesh out policies in a more comprehensive way than Trump.” 

DuHaime said that considering her low favorability rating, many people who support Clinton don’t have the sunniest view of her or her candidacy. But they may think she’s much more prepared than Trump to be president, and the debate is a moment for her to underline that argument.

“If people are voting for her and they don’t like her, they are voting for her because they have comfort on the substance,” he said.  “Being the more substantive candidate could reassure those people who are uncomfortable with her personality.” 

At the same time, don’t be overly wonky 

Al GoreAlbert (Al) Arnold GoreHow Democrats can defy the odds in 2022 The information superhighway must be accessible and affordable for all American Rescue Plan: Ending child poverty — let's make it permanent MORE could out-wonk George Bush.

But the 2000 Republican nominee got the better of the vice president in that year’s first debate nonetheless when Gore’s audible sighs turned viewers off.

Against Trump, there’s a risk in Clinton looking too much like a college professor — or the candidate you’d less like to hang out with.

“She will look more obtuse if she tries to talk too much to the audience. We should remember who the average voter is. The average voter isn’t someone who has a breadth of knowledge on these issues,” said Vincent Harris, a former aide to Sen. Rand PaulRandal (Rand) Howard Paul15 Senate Republicans pledge to oppose lifting earmark ban The Hill's Morning Report - Presented by Tax March - CDC in limbo on J&J vax verdict; Rep. Brady retiring Anti-Asian hate crimes bill overcomes first Senate hurdle MORE (Ky.) who briefly did private digital work for Trump’s campaign. 

“If Secretary Clinton tries to take the ‘I’m so wonky and I have such an inside-baseball knowledge’ route, she’s going to be hurting herself in playing to what Mr. Trump says that she is: a creature of the system.” 

Don’t prepare for a weak opponent 

Monday night will present Trump’s highest-stakes debate and his first one-on-one political event. But after his performance in the GOP primary debates, aides caution underestimating the lifelong showman. 

Many of his primary election rivals expected Trump to bungle his chances in the debates, overwhelmed by his more seasoned rivals. But instead, he continued to build momentum even when the post-debate punditry questioned his methods. 

“We talked to other staffers, other candidates would chat backstage, and they all thought Donald Trump did poorly, but voters overwhelmingly thought he won,” said J. Hogan Gidley, a former Huckabee aide that now works on a pro-Trump super PAC. 

Much of that comes from his comfort on television. 

“He is a charismatic guy, likes the attention, and will certainly not be intimidated by the bright lights and lots of people watching, he’ll probably thrive on it,” DuHaime, the Christie aide, said.  

Trump’s unpredictability will complicate Clinton’s planning; one Clinton ally told The Hill that she’s preparing for his “multiple personalities.”

DuHaime said that wild card could be “unsettling” for Clinton 

“He can be very aggressive, but in other debates, he was smartly very reserved,” he said. 

“You can war-game it a little, but at the end of the day, it’s up to the candidate."