The main event at the GOP debate: Trump vs. Bush

When the Republican candidates take the stage tonight in Cleveland, the spotlight will be on Donald Trump and Jeb Bush, the two candidates leading the polls and hogging media coverage. It’s unlikely that the debate will decide directly who will be the party’s presidential nominee. (The only recognizable change in the GOP field will likely come if one or two who didn’t make the cut, and are stuck in the 5 p.m. “junior varsity” showdown, decide to pack it in). But tonight is a first step toward winnowing the field, and ultimately picking the nominee. Some Republican voters will be watching, and even more will see bits and pieces through later media coverage. It’s possible that one or more candidates will get a boost in the polls from a good performance, although such “bumps” are usually short-lived. More importantly, Republican insiders will be paying close attention. Candidates are rarely made by strong debate performances, but at least a few have been unmade by poor ones. This Republican field is unusually rich and ill-formed, with no one candidate dominating. So what should we watch for?

Will Jeb play the statesman?

If anyone could be called the front-runner right now, it is Jeb Bush. But he is first among equals at best, receiving mediocre polling numbers and confronting a distinct lack of enthusiasm among conservative activists. He has mostly been able to hold himself aloof from the circus surrounding Donald Trump, instead sticking closely to discussions of policy, perhaps seeking a reputation as the statesman in the race. Will he be able to remain on the high ground? Will some of the lesser-known candidates challenge him for his views on immigration and Common Core? Will Trump try to bait him? Perhaps showing a family trait, Jeb hasn’t impressed many with his speaking ability, at least in more formal settings. Will he show a more rousing side Thursday night?

Will Trump take the debate seriously?

If tonight’s debate gets unusually high viewership, everyone will know who to thank. Donald Trump has been topping polls lately. However, his negatives are already very high, while his supporters tend to be among the least informed and least likely to vote. Meanwhile, he has received virtually no support from party activists and officeholders. Ross Perot, to whom Trump is often compared, received new esteem after performing well in a 1992 debate. If Trump decides to actually display some policy knowledge, perhaps he will gain some greater respect. Don’t bet on it, though. He may feel that his shtick has been working for him so far. Will any other candidates decide to attack Trump – say, for his earlier support of abortion rights or his toying with single-payer health care or his views on tax policy or his…? Do they dare run the risk of receiving a Trumpian insult that could make them the butt of late-nightrt yucks?

Will Walker and Rubio stand out?

Many observers see Scott Walker and Marco Rubio as Jeb’s strongest rivals for the GOP nomination. But both have struggled to gain public attention during the Summer of Trump. Rubio has remained a second choice for many, but a first choice for few. Walker has wowed conservative activists in his public appearances, but has often seemed out of his depth when discussing foreign policy. The debate could help these two remind Republican voters that they exist and persuade Republican activists that they are plausible nominees.

Will anyone else get attention?

The remaining six candidates will compete for the spotlight. Ted Cruz was a debate champion in college, while Mike Huckabee has long shown a talent for gaining attention. Chris Christie’s presidential prospects are floundering, and this debate may be one of his last shots at resuscitating his campaign. If the debate becomes a Trumpian circus, just behaving normally may be enough to seem presidential.

Will there be any differences on policy?

Almost all the Republican candidates will agree on the major issues. They will all denounce Planned Parenthood and call for rolling back the new EPA rules to combat climate change. They will call for cutting taxes and taking a tougher line on Iran. But will any differences arise? As I’ve noted, almost all the Republican candidates are foreign policy hawks, but Rand Paul has given signs that he will return to his dovish roots – a worldview that places him at odds with almost the entire field. Yet still, the support that Jeb Bush and Marco Rubio have given to immigration reform puts them at odds with many Republican voters, and should tempt some jibes from their rivals.

How will we remember this debate?

Probably, we won’t. Oh, there surely be a gaffe or quip that political junkies will share for years to come. But like most debates, it won’t shake up the race dramatically. Given the large and divided field, however, with some candidates known to insiders but not to average voters, even little shifts can matter. Thanks to Donald Trump’s presence, the audience should be larger than usual. That will give lesser-known candidates more chances to make this debate the BIGGEST, the GREATEST, and the CLASSIEST one ever.