Thursday's Republican debates among the large field of announced presidential contenders promises to be the summer's premier political event. And much of the focus is already on Donald Trump, the party's unlikely front-runner, who has surged ahead of his competitors in the polls and will be at the center of the debate stage.
While Trump is lowering expectations for his performance, "I've never debated," his competitors are busy practicing on how to handle the brash and unpredictable billionaire. But Trump is a skilled performer who once had a hit network television show. His campaign has entertained and excited millions of frustrated Republicans who feel let down by their party's establishment.
Trump will join the nine other contenders in the main event Thursday night, which will be hosted by Fox News. Each will be prepared to score points with pithy soundbites while attempting to convey a presidential demeanor. Most of the verbal attacks are likely to be directed at President Barack Obama and former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, the Democrat front-runner.
However, the debate moderators, Fox News' Bret Baier, Megyn Kelly and Chris Wallace, are certain to try to get the candidates to engage with each other. There is plenty of material to draw on, especially from Trump, who has slammed most of his competitors. For instance, speaking in an interview with Fox News about former Florida Governor Jeb Bush, he said, "I'm not a big fan of Jeb Bush. The last thing we need is another Bush." Or about Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker, in a speech over the weekend, he said, "Wisconsin is doing terribly."
By now most of his opponents have learned that direct attacks on Trump are not likely to play well with voters. Yet, while Trump currently enjoys a wide lead in most polls, he has taken positions in the past that his fellow debaters can exploit. Former Texas Governor Rick Perry noted, in an interview with Fox News over the weekend, "He's for single payer...How can anyone who's a conservative stand up and say I am for single-payer health care?" Trump's bombast on illegal immigration launched his campaign, but many Republicans feel he is "mushy" when it comes to what he will specifically do on the issue.
Nonetheless, handling Trump in Thursday's debate will be challenging, especially for Jeb Bush, who may have the most to lose if he performs poorly. Although it is very early in the campaign, first impressions can be important. And, other than his ability to raise an enormous amount of money for his campaign, Bush has stumbled. Governor Scott Walker will need to make a strong impression too. While he has pleased conservatives with how tough he has been on the state's unions, he has been weak on foreign policy. The person with the most to gain is Governor John Kasich of Ohio who, if he makes the cut, is the most experienced candidate at both the state and federal level.
Some candidates are still dismissing Trump's early success in the polls. For instance, New Jersey Governor Chris Christie did so in an interview with CNN over the weekend. "Anybody can do well for a month in this business, especially if you
have talent and personality, and Donald has both those things. Let's see
how this goes over the course of time," he said. Christie should know because his disapproval ratings in New Jersey are at an all time high. Christie is polling in the middle of the Republican field, and, in seeking to move up, he is sure display his blunt personality at the debate.
On NBC's Meet the Press Sunday, Trump said, “I think I’m a nice person. I really do. And I think that’s why my
numbers always go up as they get to know me better." But he also observed, "I guess my whole life has been a debate in one way." So Trump has his debate opponents worried and fretting over how to handle him, which is just the way he likes things to be.