The fight card for the first GOP debate was announced by Fox News on Tuesday night. As far as anyone knows, there will be no body slams, no head butts and, (please, God) no leotards. But the field promises as much drama and overwrought showmanship as any professional wrestling extravaganza.
The 10-person field means that the primary objective for a large percentage of the participants will be to simply get noticed in some way or another. A few of the leaders, with the possible exception of billionaire real estate mogul Donald Trump, may try to avoid getting their hands dirty, but from the opening bell Thursday, most will simply want to stand out in the midst of the melee.
As fight cards go, it’s a big one. Here are the contenders, in the order of prominence of their position on the stage, along with the strategies they’re likely to employ.
Donald “The Teflon Don” Trump
Trump comes into the debate as the uncontested leader in the polls, which means he’ll have a target on his back. The Donald’s got a choice to make – he can try to respond to attacks and criticisms in his signature over-the-top style, or he can try looking presidential for a change. His best move will be to stay mostly above the fray, maybe throwing out a few select zingers along the way but otherwise letting attacks slide off him. Key will be not getting sucked into detailed policy questions that, frankly, he probably can’t answer.
Jeb “The Prince” Bush
Bush needs to remind people why he was among the frontrunners from the moment he entered the race: He’s political royalty in the U.S., with the backing of the Republican establishment and a network of powerful donors. In recent appearances, particularly at a candidate forum in New Hampshire on Monday, he stumbled over his answers and looked distinctly un-presidential. He needs to hope Trump, who he’ll be standing next to, melts down and helps him look extra presidential by comparison.
Scott “The Pauper” Walker
If Bush is political royalty then Walker, the Kohls-frequenting penny-pincher, is just the opposite. Walker needs to find a balance between connecting with voters through his everyman persona while somehow convincing them that the same guy who tweets about his trips to the barbershop, and brags about buying $1 sweaters is the man they want running the country.
Mike “The Huckster” Huckabee
The former Arkansas governor needs to…he has to…You know what? Forget it. Six months ago, this guy was hawking a fake diabetes cure to low-information viewers of late-night television. Last week he said Obama’s Iran deal was tantamount to another Holocaust. This week he said he’d send in federal troops to stop doctors from performing abortions. Whatever he does on that stage, he’s not going to be president.
Ben “Dr. Carson” Carson
Like Huckabee, Carson isn’t going to be president. The retired brain surgeon, who did more good in his work with desperately ill children than most people can hope to do in a lifetime, isn’t a politician, a policy guy, or a Party insider. Having risen to prominence on his willingness to criticize the Affordable Care Act, Carson hasn’t shown much willingness to seriously address other issues beyond the sound-bite level. And he’s not even very good at sound bites.
Ted “The Black Belt” Cruz
Cruz is, by far, the most experienced and talented debater in the group. A master at working Republican crowds. This puts him at an advantage, but also raises expectations. That means he can’t coast, but needs to try to dominate the stage to the greatest extent possible in a 10-person field. Also, if he’s challenged by someone else on the stage and doesn’t shut them down quickly and easily, he’ll be seen as failing to meet expectations.
Marco “Grasshopper” Rubio
Rubio is a former protégé of Jeb Bush who struck out on his own and has now come back to challenge the master. Bush was a major figure in Rubio’s development as a politician in their home state of Florida, and neither likely expected to be facing the other across a presidential debate stage. Rubio needs to show voters that while he shares a lot of his political sensibilities with Bush and other establishment conservatives, he brings a younger, fresher voice and has the added benefit of potentially attracting a share of the coveted Latino vote.
Rand “Chainsaw” Paul
The candidate last seen setting the tax code on fire and attacking it with a chainsaw needs to bring that kind of aggression to the debate if he expects to revive his flagging campaign. A regular leader in the polls a year ago, Paul is scuffling along in the bottom half of the pack right now and needs to use this debate to remind GOP voters – particularly the young voters who appreciate his willingness to break from the pack on issues of war and personal freedom – why they liked him in the first place.
Chris “Slugger” Christie
Short of arranging a traffic jam that prevents the other candidates from arriving at the debate venue, Christie’s best bet is to play to his strengths. He is probably second only to Cruz in his ability to fire up a crowd, and that’s what he’ll need to do. Rather than trying to attack his fellow candidates, though, Christie’s best bet is to stand out by whacking the same targets that he always does – profligate Democrats and greedy public employees unions – and hope positive crowd reaction helps him stand out.
John “Jackrabbit” Kasich
The latest entry into the contest, Kasich went from a standing start to the middle of the pack in some polls in just a couple of weeks. In this, his first major national appearance as a candidate, he’ll mainly be looking to convince viewers seeing him for the first time that this isn’t a temporary surge, but the start of a long, steady race.