For presidential-debate geeks, Santa Claus has arrived.
His name is Donald Trump.
The fact that the real-estate mogul and celebrity candidate will take part in the first 2016 Republican debate Thursday — standing center stage, no less, as the undisputed leader in the polls — has debate watchers giddy with excitement over the unpredictability of it all.
“Anyone would be lying if they said they weren’t tuning in to watch Trump,” said Aaron Kall, director of debate at the University of Michigan. “What is he going to do? What is he going to say? Certainly he’s going to be the star of the show.”
That’s not what the nine other men trying to get a piece of the spotlight want to hear.
And they will all be men. Debate host Fox News revealed the candidate lineup Tuesday, and Trump will participate along with former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush, Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker, former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee, retired neurosurgeon Ben Carson, Texas Sen. Ted Cruz, Florida Sen. Marco Rubio, Kentucky Sen. Rand Paul, New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie and Ohio Gov. John Kasich.
The other seven GOP candidates running — former Texas Gov. Rick Perry, former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum, Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal, former Hewlett-Packard chief executive Carly Fiorina, South Carolina Sen. Lindsey Graham, former Virginia Gov. Jim Gilmore and former New York Gov. George Pataki — will be relegated to a shorter, earlier forum, also televised by Fox.
The two-hour debate will take place at 9 p.m. Thursday at the Quicken Loans Arena in Cleveland. The hour-long forum is scheduled for 5 p.m. at the same venue.
Their plans upended by Trump’s surprise candidacy and surging popularity, the top candidates who thought they knew how to prepare for a debate now must contend with a wild card.
Trump has never taken part in a political debate, but he’s far more experienced at delivering what’s needed to stand out in a pack: pithy quips.
“Trump is the master of the sound bite. He will be quoted. He will be the lead [TV-news] segment,” said Robert Watson, a professor of American studies at Lynn University in Boca Raton who helped score a presidential debate at the campus in 2012. “Someone else has to say something clever and hit him.”
Watson argued the best way to deal with Trump is to “laugh at his expense.” But not too hard, he warned — or Trump will threaten to run as a third-party candidate and siphon votes away from the Republican nominee: “He’s the spoiled kid who’s going to grab his shovel and leave the playground.”
Rick Wilson, a Republican political strategist in Tallahassee who’s not advising any presidential candidate, said Trump’s rivals should point to his shortcomings without alienating serious voters with real frustrations: “They should be very direct about acknowledging the anger that is out there, but at the same time not get caught in trying to out-Trump Trump.”
That goes in particular for Bush, who’s second to Trump in many polls and would have a hard time appealing to Trump’s supporters anyway, Wilson predicted.
“If Jeb walked into a room and said, ‘By the way, I’ve cured cancer, I’ve cured AIDS, I’ve developed a formula for immortality and created nuclear power that will never pollute anything, and I’ll give everyone a free puppy,’ Trump voters would still say ‘F--- you,’ and they would still hate him,” he said. “They have an irrational level of animus toward Jeb.”
Still, Trump can’t be ignored.
“Especially for candidates in that very low tier, it would make a lot of sense to directly confront Mr. Trump, to make sure you get a sufficient amount of air time,” said Kall, the Michigan debate coach. “For those candidates in the very top tier: You want to play the long game. Trump could be a phenomenon very early in the process and could fade. Don’t get too involved.”
Bush should expect to be in his opponents’ cross-hairs as well. If Bush boasts he was called “Veto Corleone” as governor, a rival might fire back with another reference to The Godfather: “Veto Corleone? Jeb Bush actually reminds me of Fredo,” Kall suggested off the top of his head, pointing to how Bush doesn’t like to be compared to his older brother, former President George W. Bush.
Bush, said Ed Lee, senior director for debate at the Barkley Forum at Emory University in Atlanta, should let other people take on Trump.
“One of the worst things that he could probably do is get into a shouting match with Trump, because it makes him look less presidential. Trump, in reality, is the troll. The job of Jeb Bush is to not be the troll: ‘I am the diplomat. I am the person with experience at the executive level. I am a Bush. I know what it means to be in the White House.’” Lee said. “At this juncture, smile and enjoy your status and assume that other people are going to attack Trump and do the dirty work for you.”
As for Rubio, he should be strategic about figuring out who his debate audience is, Lee said.
“He’s in a tough spot, because he’s fighting for tea-party support, and he’s fighting for support he has to try and peel off from Donald Trump — and prevent Cruz or Paul from doing the same,” Lee said. “If I were giving some advice to Rubio, I would strongly suggest that he figure out a way to contrast himself with Donald Trump and make some argument why he’s a better candidate for the people supporting Trump. And don’t worry about the rest of the field yet.”
Rubio has already made light of the debate hullaballoo. Asked Sunday in California what his “posture” would be at the debate, Rubio answered: “I’m going to be standing.”
Trump’s vulnerabilities will be exposed when he’s treated like a politician and not a TV personality, Wilson said.
“They have to start breaking the spell a little bit of Donald’s celebrity. They have to drag him into the political process. They have to force him to be more specific,” he said. “They know — and frankly he knows too — that it will quickly turn sour for Donald when he talks about specifics, when he has to talk about actual policies.”