Preview of the Fox News GOP Debate

The two line-ups are set for the Fox News/Facebook GOP Debate this Thursday. The 7pm MST debate will feature Donald Trump, Jeb Bush, Scott Walker, Mike Huckabee, Ben Carson, Ted Cruz, Marco Rubio, Rand Paul, Chris Christie and John Kasich. The earlier 3pm MST debate would have featured Rick Perry, Rick Santorum, Bobby Jindal and Carly Fiorina, but since FNS dropped their 1% threshold rule, they will also be joined by Lindsey Graham, George Pataki and Jim Gilmore.

The prime-time debate is two hours and the afternoon debate is one hour, so in the afternoon debate, the candidates will not only have fewer viewers but fewer minutes to speak.

Viewership matters. For instance, how much coverage have you seen of C-SPAN’s Voters First summit in New Hampshire on Monday? For one thing, Donald Trump didn’t participate. You have to be a super die-hard to have looked it up and watched the videos. (I did watch most of it.)

First, the afternoon debate. This is the opportunity for these candidates to show they belong in the upper tier. From least to most important, as far as who needs to perform well:

JIM GILMORE – Former governor of Virginia – He formed an exploratory committee to with intention to run for president in 2008, but due to lack of interest he dropped out in July 2007. He was the last of the current crop to jump and I see no reason why he thinks he can win. The only reason I can think of why Fox News would allow him in this debate is because he’s been a Fox News contributor.

GEORGE PATAKI – Former governor of New York – He should have run in 2012. He’s been out of power long enough that he doesn’t move the meter for anyone not employed by MSNBC’s Morning Joe. But this may be Pataki’s chance to show why he was a popular governor ten years ago.

LINDSEY GRAHAM – Most of the Republican base doesn’t like him, if they have an opinion at all, and even in South Carolina polls, the senator is only getting 5%. There is no support for his campaign outside of John McCain. He’s a decent debater, but his central message is “I will keep us at war with the Middle East for decades to come.”

RICK SANTORUM – He actually won Iowa in 2012. Now he’s polling at 1%. He tells himself that’s because it’s early, that he won momentum last time, but here’s the thing: voters did get to know him last time around, and his support is now gone.

CARLY FIORINA – I’m sure the GOP would like the optics of having a woman in the prime-time debate, but she’s never held political office, and her main achievement was as CEO of Hewlett-Packard, which ended with her termination. I think Donald Trump hurts her most. He runs his own company and no one’s ever fired him from it.

BOBBY JINDAL – His opportunity for gravitas came and went with the movie-theater shooting in Louisiana, but it didn’t happen for him. Nikki Haley’s handling of the Charleston shooting made some wish (including me) that she’d jump in the race. Jindal didn’t get a blip. He should have run in 2012. Now he needs to show why he belongs in 2016.

RICK PERRY – The former Texas governor is hurt the most by his inability to crack the top ten after positioning himself as the anti-Trump. He may have miscalculated embracing John McCain and would have benefitted from staying on message about insulting all POWs. Perry has blamed his poor debates in 2012 on being sick, not being prepared, etc. It’s imperative that he walks away the winner of the afternoon debate, or he’ll never jump into the top ten.

Now moving on to the prime-time players. From the least to most important as far as who needs to perform well:

DONALD TRUMP – He’s downplaying his debating skills so I expect him to be more subdued. I also think he’ll have no problem insulting anyone on stage that attacks him first, and he’s very good at speaking in run-on sentences until his time is over. All he has to do is not say something incredibly stupid and he’ll be fine.

JOHN KASICH – He’s most vulnerable on his time with Lehman Brothers, and he needs to have a deft answer for it. Trump’s taken swipes at him a couple of times over the past month. But in all other areas, he has an impressive resume, and his time in TV really honed his speaking skills. I imagine he’ll portray himself as one of the grown-ups who will still live a happy life if he doesn’t win, and that’s part of his appeal.

TED CRUZ – He’s a smart guy, and I expect him to throw out the most red meat for the debate audience. He needs to walk that fine line between sobriety and pomposity.

MIKE HUCKABEE – Huck’s folksy shtick plays well on stage and on TV, and I can’t imagine him fumbling the ball nor scoring a touchdown. He’ll keep himself in the middle of the pack no matter what he says.

CHRIS CHRISTIE – Republicans were begging him to jump in the race in early 2012 to stop Mitt Romney, but he didn’t feel like he had enough experience. After his egotistical speech at the RNC convention and his starring role on MSNBC every night for eight months due to Bridgegate, his star has been tarnished. He needs to use his Jersey charm to win voters back.

RAND PAUL – The libertarian heir-apparent hasn’t been able to get much attention, and we do live in an age where his chainsaw antics on YouTube are a good thing. Now he needs to show he can withstand criticism face to face, and there are a few candidates who’d love to smack him around on his non-interventionist stand on foreign policy.

BEN CARSON – The retired neurosurgeon has people curious. But now he has to show he belongs.

SCOTT WALKER – The Wisconsin governor still leads the polls in Iowa, and he’s going to make sure he stays there. Even though Trump’s the national front-runner, Walker’s performance will matter much more than the Donald’s. Voters aren’t as familiar with him and he’ll need to make a good impression.

MARCO RUBIO – Once considered a top-three option, his support has inexplicably eroded. He needs to remind people why they were interested in him in the first place.

JEB BUSH – The former Florida governor and “establishment” front-runner is the one that the other nine on stage would love to knock over. Yeah, Trump’s current popularity is concerning, but I think more of them believe Donald will eventually fizzle out, but Bush is the one they need to make sure doesn’t benefit. Jeb has to overcome his last name and the squeamishness from the base that he’s not Mitt Romney 2.0.

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