Republicans across the nation are eagerly anticipating Thursday night, when the ten GOP candidates who have polled the best take the stage for FOX News’ prime time debate, the first of the 2016 political season. This debate will set a record for the number of presidential candidates on a stage at one time, topping the nine who appeared in another FOX Republican debate on September 22, 2011.
A setting such as this creates major challenges for the candidates and their handlers. The debate is scheduled to last two hours and will be moderated by three FOX News anchors. That means each candidate can expect an average of just nine minutes of speaking time–less than ten minutes to earn the support of the viewers. With such a limiting format, how can the candidates be prepared? Where should they focus their statements and answers? In a situation like this, the contenders and their staffs should zero in on four simple rules to make it through the debate.
Rule 1: Don’t screw up.
With a Republican field this large and diverse, making unforced errors is a quick way to become an also-ran. The media loves to talk about gaffes, and opponents are hungry for any opportunity to attack. A mistake like Rick Perry’s 2011 brain freeze, when he forgot which federal agency he planned to eliminate, could mean the end of the road for most of these candidates. Following this rule will be hardest for Donald Trump (who doesn’t seem to care about what he says anyway) and for Ben Carson, who has already had to walk back public statements he’s made several times.
Rule 2: Don’t engage The Donald.
Trump may be getting all the attention now, and many Republicans see him as a refreshing change, but there is plenty of time before voting for him to stumble and fall. Candidates who come out swinging at the businessman, or who try to challenge him on his experience or style, are likely to get the cold shoulder from Republican voters in the polls following the debate. For voters frustrated with partisan bickering and gridlock, Trump’s unvarnished call-it-like-I-see-it approach is just what they’re looking for. There’s no doubt that luster will dull as the election gets closer, much as it did for Sarah Palin, when voters remember that rhetoric is a poor substitute for character, but right now any candidate who tries to mar The Donald’s brilliant glow will probably get the cold shoulder from die-hard conservative voters.
Rule 3: Play to your strengths.
With so little time to speak, the candidates will need to focus on getting three critical themes across to the audience: Who they are, why they’re running, and why they should win. All their answers should reinforce at least one of those three themes. When their nine minutes are up, they need the audience to be clear on those things, or risk being left out of the post-debate buzz. This is particularly important for lesser-known candidates like Marco Rubio, Ben Carson and John Kasich.
Rule 4: Keep it simple.
The candidates need to remember that Donald Trump is in the lead because he has an answer for everything, and that answer is always simple (sometimes ridiculously so). At this stage of the campaign, and in this setting, no one is interested in a candidate’s ten-point plan to restructure federal debt through blah blah blah enforcement and yawn oversight snore. The participants will need to clearly and concisely define problems, solutions, and strategies at a very high level, to ensure voters know they get it, they care and they’ll act decisively. That’s what it will take to get the media and the pundits talking about their campaigns in the coming days.
Contrary to what some might say, the candidates don’t need to convince voters that they can win, not at this stage. On Thursday night, the candidates just need to impress die-hard conservatives and pundits. The die-hards already think almost anyone can beat Clinton, and they are really just looking for “their man.” The pundits know that she’s polling behind most Republicans in the swing states, and while they will likely mention her in their analyses, they won’t discount the ability of any strong debate performer to defeat her 15 months from now. Thus a candidate who puts too much emphasis on “beating Hillary” won’t get much lift from it and will miss the opportunity to make a more compelling case for themselves.
The format of this debate doesn’t lend itself to substance. It’s more like speed dating. The best way any of these ten men to come out of this ahead is to be themselves, don’t talk too much, and steer clear of the elephant in the room.