What to Look For in Wednesday's Debate

What to Look For in Wednesday's Debate
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LOS ANGELES — The first Republican debate, hosted last month by Fox News, drew an unprecedented 24 million viewers. The second one, to be broadcast here Wednesday by CNN, could be even bigger.

The draw: Donald Trump, who has emerged unexpectedly as the GOP frontrunner in the race for president. During the last debate, he was something of a curiosity to many voters. Now, having continued to outpace his rivals for the nomination, he is an undeniable cultural and political phenomenon. 

As a result, he has become a target for many Republicans since the last GOP debate, a changed dynamic that will play out for its largest audience yet Wednesday. Among the attacks on Trump: that he’s unqualified to be president and not a serious candidate.

The debate will put Trump’s and other candidates’ policy chops to the test in full public view, with Jake Tapper and Dana Bash of CNN, and radio host Hugh Hewitt moderating. Hewitt in particular is known for his in-depth interviews of candidates on the subject of foreign policy; recently, he tripped up Trump on a question about Iran’s Quds Force.

“I'm confident Hugh Hewitt will do all he can to make the debate one of substance and policy,” said former U.S. Ambassador John Bolton. “He understands foreign policy is a primary issue this election and will make sure candidates properly address their views on national security issues.” 

The stakes will be high for each of the 11 Republican candidates on stage during the prime-time debate. Here are a few of the factors to watch:

Donald Trump. The key fear among Republicans is that Wednesday’s debate will be an encore for Trump, who dominated the first meeting and won positive reviews from voters in spite of some controversial remarks. But the dynamic has also shifted. “The biggest difference is that Trump is the clear frontrunner in the polls, and I think he will be held accountable,” said one Republican strategist working for a rival campaign. Trump has also struggled to nail down foreign policy specifics, and Hewitt will likely hold him to account. The real estate magnate will need to prepare for this without two of his close advisers, Roger Stone and Sam Nunberg, who helped prep him for the first debate but are no longer with the campaign.

Ben Carson. After logging a stark but memorable performance during the first debate, the retired neurosurgeon has recently climbed in the polls to rank second nationally behind Trump, according to the RealClearPolitics polling average. But Carson’s success might also make him a target, particularly among those Republicans vying for the pivotal evangelical vote. Last week, Trump attempted to cast doubt on Carson’s religious faith, saying, “All of a sudden he became a man of great faith." Carson afterward told the Washington Post he does not wish to be dragged into a “gladiator fight” with Trump — but Wednesday, he might not have a choice.

Jeb Bush. In his recent political duels with Trump, Bush has come out swinging: challenging Trump’s credentials as a Republican and insisting he cannot “insult his way to the presidency.” Trump has called Bush a “low-energy” candidate. The debate could settle their score. Bush will be playing by different rules, hoping still to appeal as the more mature candidate; Trump, as history has shown, has little filter. But Bush has vowed to play hard. "If someone comes at me, bam! I'll come back at 'em," Bush said in New Hampshire this week. A stellar debate performance by Bush suddenly seems more urgent, with the candidate now ranking fifth in the key state of New Hampshire. 

Ted Cruz. Cruz is one of the few Republican candidates who has remained uncritical of Trump, even appearing alongside him at a rally at the Capitol to oppose the president’s deal with Iran. Meanwhile, Cruz has quietly surged to third place in Iowa, according to the RealClearPolitics average. In a debate, "Our focus is simply conveying the same core message that we convey in every forum," Cruz told the Washington Post prior to the first debate in Cleveland, Ohio. With Cruz steering clear of conflict with Trump, his game plan will likely be similar during the second debate.

Marco Rubio. Rubio performed well in the first debate, but his polling has nevertheless stagnated nationally and in the key early primary states, in part due to the apparent zeal among Republican voters for an “outsider” candidate. But Rubio has begun to hint at a line of attack he could use against candidates without government experience, in particular those who lack a deep understanding of foreign policy. “If someone doesn’t (have that), I think it is very concerning,” Rubio told CNN recently. Rubio, for his part, has put his foreign policy chops at the center of his campaign, and will likely do the same during this debate. 

Carly Fiorina. The former CEO of Hewlett-Packard will be the sole new face on the prime-time debate stage, having impressed audiences with her polish and preparedness at the first Republican debate and climbed in the polls since then. Now, Fiorina will need to prove her mettle once again. A now-infamous remark by Trump in Rolling Stone magazine targeting Fiorina — “Look at that face! Would anybody vote for that?” — might give her an opportunity. She has hinted that she will come out fighting Wednesday, having cut a video responding to Trump’s insult, and referring to Trump on Sunday as “the entertainer” in the race for president.

Scott Walker. Wednesday’s showdown could be a pivotal moment for Walker, whose campaign has been in free-fall since the first debate, although his favorability remains high. Among the factors dogging the Wisconsin governor has been his unwillingness to take firm positions, which could pose a problem for him on the debate stage. Walker has recently sought to regain his political footing while touting his outsider credentials with the promise to “wreak havoc on Washington,” a line that will likely get some airtime Wednesday. He also may continue to re-emphasize the anti-union stance that put him on the map nationally with conservatives, a theme that has been the focus of Walker's remarks in recent days with a slew of new policy proposals. 

Mike Huckabee. An appearance by Huckabee in Kentucky to herald county clerk Kim Davis’s release from jail leaves little doubt as to the audience Huckabee is courting in this election: evangelical voters and social conservatives. But, with that audience turning in large part to Trump and Carson, Huckabee will need to begin to win them back Wednesday.

John Kasich. Kasich decided not to engage Trump in the first debate, and he has avoided talking about the frontrunner as Kasich has climbed the polls in New Hampshire. “I am unknown largely nationally,” Kasich explained on Fox News Sunday. “If I’m talking about Donald Trump or somebody else, or their strategy, then I’m not talking about myself.” Kasich will likely lean on the traits that distinguished him in last month’s debate — namely, his frank tone and his embrace of moderate policy positions — to boost him again Wednesday.

Rand Paul. When Paul attempted to take on Trump during the first debate, the gambit backfired: as Trump has continued to rise, Paul has failed to cobble together any momentum. But in a debate that will center on Trump and foreign policy, an area in which Paul’s dovish views distinguish him, Paul could have a path back to the spotlight. "I think I was a little too easy on Donald Trump last time," Paul joked to Politico.

Chris Christie. The New Jersey governor joked to Jimmy Fallon that he might “go nuclear” if denied airtime at Wednesday’s debate. Although he is still polling in the low single digits nationally, Christie has insisted he is not depending on a breakout moment in this debate. “If the election were in like, September, yeah, I'd need a breakout performance,” Christie said. But because it’s still so early, Christie added, “I'll go out there Wednesday, be myself, tell the truth as I see it. We'll let the chips fall where they may. I don't feel a pressure.”


Rebecca Berg is a national political reporter for RealClearPolitics. She can be reached at rberg@realclearpolitics.com.


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