After sparring for months on the campaign trail, the 10 leading candidates for the Republican nomination for president will take the gloves off for the first time on a debate stage on Thursday, August 6, in Cleveland, Ohio.
Here are seven things to watch as they try to gain ground on surprising frontrunner Donald Trump.
Trump, Trump, and more Trump
The billionaire real-estate magnate has shocked both political observers and the GOP establishment since entering the race by defying conventional wisdom. First were his shocking comments about Mexicans, then his dismissal of Sen. John McCain’s (R-AZ) war record. For more conventional candidates, statements like these would be deal breakers. Yet Trump is an unusual candidate in every way, so expect him to approach the debate with his typical truculent, unorthodox style. But like any frontrunner, he’ll receive a barrage of verbal volleys from the other candidates. We’ll know how well his strategy plays once he hits the debate stage.
High road or low road?
When former Arkansas Governor Mike Huckabee compared the nuclear deal with Iran to marching the nation of Israel to "the door of the oven," several pundits said his strategy was to steal the megaphone from Trump for a few news cycles by being at least equally outrageous. Keep an eye on whether other candidates lagging in the polls use over-the-top statements to make headlines or try to portray themselves as the adult on stage.
Trump’s early lead has surely turned debate prep on its head for many candidates. John Weaver, a longtime GOP strategist and adviser to Ohio Governor John Kasich, brilliantly tweeted, "Imagine a NASCAR driver mentally preparing for a race knowing one of the drivers will be drunk. That’s what prepping for this debate will be like." Barbs aside, the candidates are in uncharted territory, so look for what works and what doesn’t.
Like any big fight, there’s an undercard. Fox News is airing a 5 pm debate next Thursday featuring the candidates who do not make the top 10 cut for the prime-time event. Those candidates are one-time HP CEO Carly Fiorina, former New York Governor George Pataki, South Carolina Sen. Lindsey Graham, former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum, Louisiana Governor Bobby Jindal, former Texas Governor Rick Perry, and former Governor of Virginia Jim Gilmore.
The Hispanic audience
The Hispanic vote is widely believed to have turned the Electoral College in President Barack Obama’s favor in 2012, and many believe the Republicans have to make up even more ground this time due to Trump’s comments about Mexicans. A number of the GOP candidates speak Spanish fluently, and Perry has also spoken up on behalf of Mexican-Americans. Will any take advantage of what’s bound to be a significant TV audience to stick up for this key demographic?
Speaking of TV viewership, keep an eye on the debate’s ratings, especially in comparison to 2012 and the upcoming Democratic debates. If considerably higher than normal, many pundits will see the numbers as a sign Trump is attracting people who aren’t just early primary voters and party loyalists – or who just want to see a good fight.
Did it work?
Republican National Committee messaging guru Sean Spicer wrote in The Wall Street Journal about many of the frustrations with the 2012 debate schedule, as well as the hosts, moderators, and venues. Whether the 2016 format and schedule work better could affect the debate process in both parties.
Frank Washkuch is news editor at PRWeek.