The history of presidential debates is peppered with oddities, from dog scatology to back-breaking wisecracks to even a scene literally stolen right out of an old Frank Capra movie. But Thursday night's two-tiered Republican debate — organized by a TV network rather than a civic group, with 10 designated big-league candidates in prime time and seven scrubs scrambling for attention during East Coast rush hour — may be the most peculiar yet.
“You have all these elements of controversy, excitement and weirdness coming together in a perfect storm that’s going to make this seem much, much more important than we could have imagined any debate 15 months before the election could possibly be,” says Alan Schroeder, a journalism professor at Boston’s Northeastern University and author of Presidential Debates: 50 Years of High-Risk TV and several books about the intersection of politics, television and celebrity.
The first debate of a presidential campaign always attracts attention. But this one is complicated by the existence of a huge Republican field, so big that nearly half the candidates will be relegated to a warm-up show. And even so, each candidate will get so little time to answer questions that it practically guarantees they’ll be swinging for the fences with soundbites and swagger over substance.
Add in the presence of billionaire showman Donald Trump, who plays by the rules of the gaudy reality-show television in which he’s made a fortune rather than those of the previously known political universe, and the debate morphs into something almost mythic.
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“Trump’s going to be outrageous, because he always is, and everybody else is going to be trying to throw bombs in order to get the attention you have to have to get into the next debate,” predicts Gary Johnson, a two-term Republican governor of New Mexico who got squeezed out of Republican presidential debates in 2012 and fled to the Libertarian Party, where he became the nominee.
“Whatever else it may be, it’s really gonna be entertaining. I’m certainly going to be watching.”
Controversy over the debate flared immediately when Fox News first announced the two-hour debate in May and, nervously eyeing a field of candidates that already numbered more than a dozen (it has since grown to 17), announced that it would permit only the top 10 — as measured in a basket of five national polls — to participate.
Much of the furor has since quieted, partly because Fox News decided to give the candidates who didn’t make the cut their own hour-long debate, albeit at 5 p.m. EDT, when many viewers will be snarled in commuter traffic. It also relieved some of the tension when some separation developed in the candidates’ polling numbers.
There’s a 1.4 percentage-point gap between Ohio Gov. John Kasich, the No. 10 candidate, and former Texas Gov. Rick Petty, No. 11, rather than the infintinesemal tenth-of-a-point many critics had anticipated. And none of the cellar-dweller candidates has even 2 percent in the polls.
That hasn’t pacified everybody. Robert Watson, a professor of American studies at Lynn Univeristy in Boca Raton, noted that Jimmy Carter and Ronald Reagan both trailed badly at the start of the campaigns that ended with their being elected president. “Early on no one gave them a chance, and they were polling very low,” he said. “It's possible that the next president of the United States could be in the also-rans.” Added Northwestern journalism Prof. Craig LaMay, co-author of Inside the Presidential Debates: “The margin of error in some of these polls is plus or minus 3 percentage points or more. That’s enough to change the results right there.”
But even analysts who don’t like booting candidates based on polls believe the idea of trying to stage a debate with 17 candidates would have been like herding cats. “I used to be a TV producer, so my sympathy is actually with the networks that have to solve this problem,” said Schroeder. “It does imbue the networks with a lot of power, makes them potentially kingmakers or queenmakers, and that makes everybody uncomfortable. But 17 people on stage — viewers would have been keeling over dead.”
Even with the reduced numbers on stage, don’t expect to hear any learned discourses on Plato’s theory of the nation-state. Because of time constraints, each candidate will have just one minute to answer a question from the moderators (Fox News hosts Bret Baier, Megyn Kelly and Chris Wallace, who will draw some of their questions from viewer suggestions on Facebook). Any candidate mentioned by name during somebody else’s answer will get 30 seconds for rebuttal.
The brevity would seem to play into the hands of Trump, who is not only the most seasoned TV performer in American politics since Reagan but also a gleeful bomb-thrower whose speeches are streaked with references to Mexican rapists and the dubious patriotism of POWs.
“It’s hard to foresee how the other candidates will handle that if it starts,” says LaMay. “Some of them may be tempted to try to out-outrageous Trump, but I don’t know if that can be done, especially by some of these candidates. Somebody like Kasich is a thoughtful guy and kind of a milquetoast. What’s he possibly going to do to upstage Trump?”
One possibility is the ambush insult, which has sometimes been deployed with spectacular success in political debates. Democratic vice-presidential candidate Lloyd Bentsen, who knew his young Republican opponent Dan Quayle often parried questions about his youth by noting he had more Washington experience than John F. Kennedy did when he was elected, lay in wait. When Quayle offered the argument, Bentsen snapped, “Jack Kennedy was a friend of mine. Senator, you’re no Jack Kennedy.” It turned Quayle into a national punchline for the rest of the campaign.
Reagan had success with a similar crack at a 1980 debate during the New Hampshire primary. George H.W. Bush, well ahead in the polls, refused to debate other Republican candidates and agreed to a one-on-one debate with Reagan only when Reagan agreed to pay for the whole event. When Reagan tried to invite the other Republicans on stage, the moderator ordered technicians to turn off his microphone, to which Reagan thundered, “I’m paying for this microphone!”
The remark won huge applause and started Reagan’s miracle comeback. “What nobody realized at the time, though, was that Reagan had stolen that line right out of a scene from a Frank Capra movie about politics called State of the Union, starring Spencer Tracy and Katherine Hepburn,” says Schroeder. “Reagan obviously planned the whole thing.”
But not every ambush ends so well. Johnson, in the only debate he was allowed to join in 2011, carefully prepared a wisecrack for the moment when the subject of President Obama’s stimulus package came up — which it did. “My next door neighbor's two dogs have created more shovel-ready jobs than this president,” said Johnson, producing howls of laughter from the audience.
“I made a joke about dog[bleep] on national television, and everybody loved it!” remembers Johnson. “I was man of the hour on Google and YouTube, a zillion hits! And the only thing that happened was I got kicked out of the next debate.”
Miami Herald staff writer Patricia Mazzei contributed to this report.
First GOP presidential debate
Venue: Cleveland’s Quicken Loans Arena
Participants: Jeb Bush, Ben Carson, Chris Christie, Ted Cruz, Mike Huckabee, John Kasich, Rand Paul, Marco Rubio, Donald Trump, Scott Walker
Sponsors: Fox News, Facebook
Time: 9-11 p.m.
Moderators: Bret Baier, Megyn Kelly, Chris Wallace
Where to watch: Fox News stations
A forum at 5 p.m. will feature the seven candidates who did not make the top 10 for the debate: Carly Fiorina, Jim Gilmore, Lindsey Graham, Bobby Jindal, George Pataki, Rick Perry, Rick Santorum