As America braces for the first official debate of the 2016 Republican primaries, everyone will be on the edge of their seats. With 17 candidates declared, the field is being split into two debates: the top 10 finishers in recent polls will debate at 9 p.m. Eastern Time during primetime on Thursday August 6th, and the remaining candidates will debate earlier in the evening, at 5 p.m. Eastern Time.
1) Will candidates go after Trump–or join him?
Donald Trump is the elephant in the room. Some candidates will try to attack him as much as possible–and try to show that he isn’t a serious contender. Other candidates will try to agree with him, in order to woo his supporters if the Donald’s campaign were to go unexpectedly south.
Two strategies–and either one might pay off well.
2) Which candidates should have made the top debate? And which candidates shouldn’t have?
Even though the early evening debate features candidates who are polling under 2% of the vote, this field alone would be a very strong one for Republicans. Top 2012 contenders, like former Texas Governor Rick Perry and former Philadelphia Senator Rick Santorum, will be featured–alongside former three-term New York Gov. George Pataki, former Hewlett-Packard CEO Carly Fiorina, Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal, and Senator Lindsey Graham (R-SC.)
If you watch both debates, pay special attention to which of these qualified, largely unknown candidates deserve to be on the top stage next time around–and pay attention to which candidates from the top debate don’t really belong in the top tier.
3) Is Trump actually for real?
Donald Trump has made a name for himself–with the poll numbers to prove it–by making a number of controversial statements that have rallied the Republican base.
But can he sustain his momentum in a debate setting?
Trump has little political experience and, as a billionaire who has been surrounded by fawning assistants for decades, will he be able to handle the pressure? Moreover, will he be able to prove to the electorate that he has more substance than style? Namely, will he be able to talk about the big issues in a thoughtful way–or will he just continue to spell out large talking points?
Moreover, will Trump, the one-time Democrat (and Hillary Clinton donor!), seem more or less palatable to the American people when his actual policy positions are revealed in the context of the debate?
4) Who can hit Hillary hardest?
Hillary Clinton is all but certain to win the Democratic nomination–which means the next GOP nominee is going to have to be able to attack her, hard.
While candidates should be judged on how good of a President they would ultimately be–based on their record and their stances–it’s almost equally important (in terms of winning an election) for that candidate to be able to expose the dark side about Hillary Clinton, her sudden adoption of liberal policies, and her growing scandals.
So far, Carly Fiorina–who will be appearing at the earlier debate–has made a name for herself by refusing to hold punches. Lindsey Graham, also in the earlier debate, also attacked Clinton in Monday’s New Hampshire forum. But will one of the big dogs, on the top stage, be able to nail Hillary to the wall?
5) Who’s the dark horse?
In any election, the so-called “frontrunners” this early in the game rarely make it to the end; at this point in 2007, pundits were predicting a Hillary Clinton vs. Rudy Giuliani mashup in 2008, which didn’t even come close to happening.
Instead, “dark horse” candidates will emerge–politicians who are virtually unknown at the beginning of the election, but rise to be real contenders. Ohio Gov. John Kasich, who only recently declared his candidacy and is virtually unknown outside of Ohio, has shot up to tenth place in the Republican polls–getting him a spot on the top stage. A successful governor from the swingiest swing state in the country, could he make a strong go at the White House?
6) Who makes the biggest mistakes–and who gets the best lines?
Soundbites are critical, this early in the game–and they can make or break a candidacy. In 2012, Rick Perry entered the race with high hopes–only to see him become the butt of jokes when he couldn’t remember the three federal agencies he would cut as President, and simply said, “Oops!” Likewise, Newt Gingrich’s solid debate performances helped (briefly) catapult him into the lead for the 2012 Republican nomination.
Inevitably, some candidates will leave the debate stage deeply bruised–having said something that their Republican opponents and Democrats will pounce on. And some candidates will say something fantastic that gives voters a reason to give them another look.