Analysis: A look at what candidates need to accomplish and things to keep in mind while watching the first Republican presidential debate of the 2016 campaign.
CLEVELAND — Donald Trump needs to act presidential. Jeb Bush has to erase the notion that he’s just another Bush. And some other Republicans have to make enough of a first impression on voters that they can vault into the top tier of a crowded presidential field.
On TV: The 2-hour GOP debate. Time: 6 p.m. PST. Channel: Fox News. Where: Cleveland
Ten Republicans will vie tonight in the first Republican presidential debate of the 2016 campaign. The other seven candidates can participate in a one-hour forum starting at 2 p.m.
The debate at Cleveland’s Quicken Loans Arena is likely to shake up and redefine the Republican field, the biggest in modern times. Here’s what the contenders need to do to stay in, or reach, the front of the pack:
Tier 1: Front-runners
Donald Trump: Can he look and act presidential? He needs to show (a) he’s thought out some policy positions and (b) he has a commander in chief’s temperament. What’s his remedy for overhauling the nation’s health-care system? Will there be detail or another burst of vivid sound bites?
Jeb Bush: Can he be pithy, and can he separate himself from his brother? The former governor of Florida tends to ramble and get too nuanced, not a recipe for standing out in rapid-fire debates. He’s likely to get challenged on his support for a path to legal status for many immigrants in the U.S. illegally and his support for Common Core educational standards.
Scott Walker: Will he get beyond the talking points? The governor of Wisconsin wows Republicans when he boasts about how he took on unions in a budget fight. But it’s not all that it seems, and he’s likely to be confronted about shortfalls that required tough spending cuts. He usually answers with well-rehearsed talking points, but he must go further and impress viewers that he knows what he’s talking about.
Marco Rubio: Can he demonstrate gravitas and commitment? The Florida senator has to defend his 2013 support for a comprehensive immigration overhaul that included a path to citizenship for immigrants in the U.S. illegally, and then his move away from that approach. He wants to come across as a national-security expert and needs to talk comfortably and authoritatively about terrorist threats.
Tier 2: Lots of talent
Ted Cruz: Will he try to out-Trump Trump? He can’t resist the quick hit, and it’s landed him in political jeopardy while Trump has won the outraged voters, so far. The senator from Texas went for broke recently, calling the Senate Republican leader a liar. Will Cruz separate himself further from the establishment?
Rand Paul: He sank to eighth in the Fox News poll averages that determined debate status. The senator from Kentucky seems unable to get traction, even after this week’s leadership role in trying to divert federal funds from Planned Parenthood. He must find a way to stand out in the pack.
Tier 3: The wild cards
John Kasich: Will conservatives accept him? He’ll be introducing himself to much of the public, and his regular-guy demeanor and ease discussing issues should help. But will the governor of Ohio appear presidential? And might he seem too centrist and accommodating to satisfy the conservative base?
Mike Huckabee: Can he demonstrate mainstream appeal? He’s likely to keep pounding away with provocative statements, largely aimed at his Christian right constituency. The former Arkansas governor must show a greater grasp of mainstream issues, notably the economy, health care and foreign policy, to break out of this tier.
Ben Carson: Is he too understated to make a splash? He’ll be steady, thoughtful, conservative, and maybe too calm and quiet to stand out. The retired neurosurgeon has stayed away from the sort of incendiary comments that marked his early political efforts. But what does he know about how to fight terrorism or manage an economy?
Chris Christie: Can he calm down? His no-prisoners style is perfect for a debate. But the governor of New Jersey has to erase the impression that he’s too quick to anger when challenged.
Tier 4: 2 p.m. group
These candidates didn’t have the support in national polls to qualify for the debate under rules set by Fox News. They’re invited to the 2 p.m. forum, which will allow them to appear sequentially.
Rick Perry: Is he 2012’s news? The former governor of Texas had a huge opportunity last time and blew it. He’s got to get through all the new faces and the old concerns, and winding up in the “other” forum could be further evidence his time is up.
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Carly Fiorina: How does she break out of the pack? Expect the former business executive to keep stressing her business résumé and criticizing Hillary Rodham Clinton, which she does like no one else in the field.
Lindsey Graham: Is he too accommodating to Democrats? He has to show conservatives he’s really one of them. They’re unhappy with his willingness to work with Democrats. The senator from South Carolina also needs to explain why he thinks he has a shot.
Bobby Jindal: Can the policy-wonk Jindal reappear? He’s fashioned himself as the candidate of the Christian right. Can he return to being the two-term governor of Louisiana known for his budget-management and health-care expertise?
Rick Santorum: What happened to the winner of the 2012 Iowa caucus? The former senator from Pennsylvania has a rough task, convincing his religious right constituency he deserves another chance. So far, that group seems more inclined to consider Cruz, Huckabee and Carson.
Tier 5: 2 p.m. group
George Pataki: The three-term governor of New York is hoping to break through in New Hampshire. He can only hope independents and moderates tune in.
Jim Gilmore: The former governor of Virginia will talk national security. Viewers may wonder why someone who hasn’t won a race since 1997 and was crushed in his 2008 Senate bid should be considered.
While you watch
Keep these points in mind:
How far can candidates go challenging Donald Trump?
Will rivals demand he explain his branding undocumented Mexican immigrants as criminals and rapists? Trump has insulted most of these candidates, and this is their chance to return fire. And what will it cost them? Think about whether they look better if they go after him, or he does?
Will Trump evolve from showman to potential president?
While he’s comfortably ahead in most polls, Trump’s negatives are also huge. Skeptics see him as a shallow-minded distraction. This week, Trump posted a Facebook video saying he wanted rivals to answer one question: “How will you make America great again?” Trump needs to answer that himself, and say how he can go beyond the quips and sound bites to get things done.
Is it time for a new generation?
Walker, 47, and Rubio, 44, are the year’s biggest curiosities. Each boasts a strong political résumé and plenty of campaign cash. Walker wowed Iowa Republicans this year demanding that the federal government adopt the same spending restraints as his state. Rubio, from the nation’s premier swing state, has been on the short list of future presidents since he won a Senate seat in 2010.
Who speaks to and for Christian conservatives?
A sizable bloc of Republicans is eager to rally around a firebrand who’s fiercely anti-abortion, won’t relent in trying to repeal Obamacare, thinks Common Core is federal control of schools and is appalled by same-sex marriage. Santorum won these voters in 2012. This time, he’s one of many — Carson, Huckabee, Cruz and Walker — seeking their approval.
Who seems most like a president?
In recent elections, the most successful candidates projected an aura. That didn’t mean voters liked them. Debates allow viewers to discern who seems presidential, who could command the military, negotiate with Congress and rally the nation.