The Republican rivals of Donald Trump are determined not to let the upcoming debate become about him.
Jeb Bush is spending hours in sessions from Florida to Maine preparing policy answers for Thursday’s first Republican debate, but he is also being mindful to avert any display of disdain for the man he will stand beside, Donald Trump, who has infuriated Bush by criticizing Mexican immigrants. (Bush is married to one.)
Gov. Scott Walker of Wisconsin is crafting one-minute answers and 30-second rebuttals in case Trump or others continue attacking him as a flip-flopper on Common Core education standards and as a weak jobs creator, testing lines in mock debates with advisers playing Trump and other candidates.
Sen. Marco Rubio of Florida, Sen. Ted Cruz of Texas and Ben Carson are determined not to let the debate on Fox News become about Trump, practicing to steer the conversation to national security, entitlement reform and health care — which might implicitly plant doubts about Trump’s knowledge on those issues.
These intensive preparations, described by advisers and friends of the top candidates, reflect the preoccupation that many Republican candidates have with Trump, whose taste for lacerating his rivals with provocative language has made him the most unpredictable force on a presidential debate stage in years.
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Trump has risen quickly to the top of several polls, challenging or erasing the long-held leads of Walker in Iowa and Bush in New Hampshire, and he enters the debates with far greater name recognition and personal wealth to draw on than the other candidates, who cannot afford to leave the debate in a diminished state.
“No one knows how much the moderators are going to ask us about Donald Trump, let alone what Trump is going to say, so the preparations are warped by the Trump factor,” Carson said in an interview. “What most of us will be looking for is any opportunity to turn the conversation into something meaningful, rather than about one man.”
Most of the Republicans are wary of taking on Trump at this point because he seems impenetrable, yet they also do not want to look weak in the face of his attacks. The best they can hope for is that Trump will attack their biggest perceived opponent; one ally of Cruz, who is running hard in Iowa, said he would like nothing more than for Trump to continue criticizing the Wisconsin record of Walker in hopes of weakening him in Iowa.
“You only attack the king if you can kill him; otherwise you leave him alone, because the king will kill you,” said Frank Luntz, a Republican pollster. “So the candidates better have something good ready if they come after Trump. Or they might try to find a way, in their responses, to remind Trump of something that another candidate said that really bothered him.”
Stagecraft is critical, especially for Bush and Walker, since they are expected to be standing on either side of Trump and often in the same camera shot. Advisers to Bush and Walker say they are confident that their candidates will not scowl or stiffen up in reaction to anything Trump says, but rather will seek opportunities to look and sound more presidential than he does — and like the strongest opponent to Hillary Rodham Clinton, should she become the Democratic nominee.
With an unusually large lineup of 10 candidates expected onstage, there will be less time to speak than usual; most campaigns are assuming each candidate will get eight to 10 minutes to answer questions and make rebuttals. Every minute spent talking about Trump is a minute they will lose to sell themselves to voters.
The lineup of candidates will be announced after polling analysis is completed Tuesday evening. The cable network has yet to reveal the national polls it will use to decide which 10 of the 17 prominent, declared candidates will win a place at a podium for the main debate.
The debate moderators asking questions will be the Fox News hosts Bret Baier, Megyn Kelly and Chris Wallace. The candidates who do not make the top 10 were invited to take part in an earlier debate moderated by “America’s Newsroom” co-anchors Bill Hemmer and Martha MacCallum.
There may be an exception to the strategy of minimizing Trump as a focal point, advisers say. Should he say something highly inflammatory — for example, about Mexicans again — candidates may look timid if they fail to call him out.
Rick Perry, the former governor of Texas, may have the most at stake here — that is, if he qualifies for the debate, an uncertain prospect given that Ohio Gov. John Kasich could edge him out for a debate spot based on the polling. Perry has described Trump as a “cancer on conservatism” — and challenged him to a pullup contest — and he knows he needs to stand up to Trump on the debate stage.
“Anyone who will offer a criticism of Trump elsewhere but is afraid to do it to his face will do themselves great damage,” said Steve Schmidt, a Republican strategist, recalling the damage that Tim Pawlenty, a former governor of Minnesota, did to himself in 2011 after declining to repeat his criticisms of Mitt Romney’s health-care policies to Romney’s face in a debate.
Trump, in an interview, laughed when asked if he was preparing for Thursday’s debate. While he said that his years of television work on “The Apprentice” gave him great comfort in front of the camera, he also contended that he had an advantage over most of his rivals: He would be speaking his mind at the debate rather than trying to recall prepared answers or angling for ways to score points against a rival.
“I am who I am, and I think that will be good enough,” he said. “You know, I may have far more money than anyone, but I see the people who go out and spend money on pollsters, and they can’t make a comment until they test it. I don’t have a pollster, and I’m not going to have a full-time pollster. If pollsters are so good, why is Hillary doing so badly in the polls?”
Actually, Clinton has a strong lead over other Democratic candidates, but she has far weaker numbers, as does Trump, when it comes to overall favorability, honesty and trustworthiness.
Given that polls are being used to decide who is invited to the early debates, uncomfortable or gaffe-filled performances carry more danger than in past races.
“First and foremost, a candidate has to have confidence in their message and their ability to deliver that message, because viewers will see that — or they’ll see when you don’t have that,” said Stuart Stevens, a Republican strategist who is advising Gov. Chris Christie of New Jersey.
Among the leading Republicans, Walker has gone to some of the most elaborate lengths to prepare, having advisers standing at podiums and playing Trump and everyone else who could be on the debate stage.
Advisers say Walker is ready to respond to questions or rivals’ attacks against him as insufficiently conservative on illegal immigrants (he once favored a path to citizenship for them) and abortion (he ran a re-election ad last year saying he supported legislation that would leave the decision to a woman and her doctor).
An unexpected challenge for the candidates: finding a convincing stand-in for Trump who can authentically channel his bravado and testiness.
Yet preparation is only one part of a successful debate strategy. Schmidt noted that the most devastating lines from past debates were the result of listening closely and waiting for the right moment to attack, such as Ronald Reagan’s “There you go again” comment to Jimmy Carter in 1980 and Lloyd Bentsen’s “You’re no Jack Kennedy” riposte to Dan Quayle.
“The best thing is for candidates to be ready to strike at opportunistic moments as soon as they hear them,” Schmidt said. “There are very few instances where candidates score points by striking first; it’s more often the counterpunch.”