GOP candidates prepare to debate Donald Trump, this time for real

Candidates from left take the stage for the first Republican presidential debate on Aug. 6 at the Quicken Loans Arena in Cleveland. They face off again Wednesday at the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library in Simi Valley, California.
Candidates from left take the stage for the first Republican presidential debate on Aug. 6 at the Quicken Loans Arena in Cleveland. They face off again Wednesday at the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library in Simi Valley, California. AP

Now the Republican presidential candidates know what they’re up against — so get ready for their second debate to get rowdy.

The first debate, held last month in Cleveland, was a blockbuster — even though the competitors didn’t know what to brace for, not with a celebrity and rookie politician as the GOP front-runner.

When they face off again Wednesday, expect the contenders to be better prepared for Donald Trump.

Trump, already in the lead for far longer than anyone expected, still will be the debate’s focal point. With 11 candidates on stage instead of 10, Trump’s lectern will be smack in the center. And his opponents, eager to ignore the real-estate tycoon when he launched his candidacy in June, have realized Trump is not going away any time soon.

“So, the debate. I hear they’re all going after me,” Trump said Monday at a campaign rally in Dallas. “Whatever. Whatever!”

Aware that the first debate drew a record 24 million viewers to Fox News, CNN — which is co-hosting the second debate with Salem Radio — has billed the event as a prize fight. Not to be outdone, Trump suggested CNN turn over its debate profits to a military veterans’ group, a request the cable network has ignored.

The debate will take place at the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library in Simi Valley, California — the perfect venue for candidates to sing the Gipper’s praises, which they already do, and to make the case, one by one, for why each considers himself or herself the heir to the Reagan legacy.

Whether they’ll succeed in following in Reagan’s sunny brand of politics, though, might prove difficult. Trump’s success in spite of his penchant for using words like “stupid” and “loser” has prompted some of his rivals to try to punch up with indecorous words of their own. Last week, Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal called Trump a litany of names, including “egomaniacal madman,” “entertaining narcissist” and “non-serious carnival act.”

“I only respond to people that register more than 1 percent in the polls,” Trump shot back on Twitter.

The candidates barely registering in public-opinion surveys won’t be able to take on Trump directly. Jindal, South Carolina Sen. Lindsey Graham, former New York Gov. George Pataki and former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum will take part in a secondary debate scheduled for 6 p.m. Wednesday, also on CNN. Former Virginia Gov. Jim Gilmore didn’t even make the cut; former Texas Gov. Rick Perry, who had bashed Trump as a “cancer on conservatism,” became the first Republican to drop out of the race last week.

The 8 p.m. main draw will feature Trump, former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush, Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker, retired neurosurgeon Ben Carson, Texas Sen. Ted Cruz, Florida Sen. Marco Rubio, former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee, Kentucky Sen. Rand Paul, Ohio Gov. John Kasich, New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie and former Hewlett-Packard chief executive Carly Fiorina.

Fiorina was the only one to move up from the junior debate last time, after successfully lobbying CNN to change its original rules to allow her in based on her improvement in polls since August. She’s poised to clash with Trump, 69, who in an interview with Rolling Stone published last week derided Fiorina, 61 — the only Republican woman running — for her appearance.

“Look at that face! Would anybody vote for that?” said Trump, who in last month’s debate defended having called women “disgusting animals” and “fat pigs.”

He later tried to explain the Fiorina comment as a reference to her “persona.” She brushed it off as a sign she was getting under Trump’s skin. “Ladies: Look at this face!” she joked to delighted supporters.

Trump also has tussled with Carson, who lives in West Palm Beach and surged to near-Trump levels in polls as a fellow anti-establishment candidate without the Trump bluster. Carson questioned Trump’s faith in God and later apologized. Trump dismissed Carson, whose surgical skills are renown, as an “OK doctor.”

And then there’s the ongoing Trump feud with Jeb Bush, who has slipped in polls but insists on patience from backers to outlast Trump, whom Bush advisers see as an unwelcome, temporary diversion. Earlier this month, Bush vowed not to take part “in some reality TV show” — a reference to Trump’s former gig hosting Celebrity Apprentice. And Bush said last week that he plans to debate as “my boring, normal self.”

However, Bush has been nagged by Trump’s characterization of the workaholic former Florida governor as “low energy.” And Bush has tried to hit back. “El Sr. Trump dice que no puedo hablar español en los Estados Unidos. Pobrecito,” Bush declared at a Coral Gables campaign office opening over the weekend. Translation: Mr. Trump said I can’t speak Spanish in the United States. Poor little thing.

One of the men who will probably stay away from most Trump entanglements? Florida Sen. Marco Rubio, who intends to position himself as the likable consensus candidate that can bring GOP factions together once early front-runners fade.

“These polls are irrelevant — they don’t mean anything,” Rubio said last week. “I am running a campaign that’s designed to be in first place in January, February, March and April, not in first place in August and September … I’m going to tell people who I am and what I will do, and I’m confident that that leads to victory when it counts.”

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