Top Goals for the 10 Debaters

What each candidate must do to succeed

For Donald Trump, it’s all about staying calm and proving himself in a highly charged political venue.

For Jeb Bush, the goal is to stay pleasant and stay away from gaffes.

For others such as John Kasich, it’s about making the case for his candidacy among all the heavy hitters on stage.

Can they do it?

There are 10 different strategies for 10 different candidates who will all share a single stage at Thursday’s two-hour, prime-time Republican presidential primary debate at Quicken Loans Arena in Cleveland. The event — the first nationally televised face-off of the 2016 election season — airs at 9 p.m. Eastern on the Fox News network. Fox determined the top 10 earlier this week based on the candidates’ standings in recent, major polls. The other seven lower-tier candidates have been relegated to an hour-long, “matinee” debate airing at 5 p.m.

What’s the top priority for each of the 10 prime-time candidates? LifeZette asked Larry Sabato, director of the Center for Politics at the University of Virginia, Matthew Corrigan, chairman of the Department of Political Science at the University of North Florida, and Timothy Hagle, an associate professor of political science at the University of Iowa.

“You can’t give a positive introduction of yourself by attacking others. This is the first debate, after all,” Sabato said.

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The three political scientists don’t expect a fireworks show, with so many candidates fighting for so little air time.

“While some sword-crossing is inevitable, there isn’t going to be open warfare on the stage. You can’t give a positive introduction of yourself by attacking others. This is the first debate, after all,” Sabato said.

But he added that some of the lower-tier candidates will have to make themselves heard.

“Candidates who are very well-funded – Trump, Bush, Cruz – don’t need debates nearly as much as the others. The stakes are higher for all the others. Standing pat won’t cut it.”

Hagle also predicted few actual exchanges between the candidates, and pointed to the basic cardinal rule of avoiding major gaffes that tend to stick in viewers’ memories years later. He pointed to former Texas Gov. Rick Perry’s famous “Oops” moment at a 2012 debate in which he forgot the name of a federal agency he wanted to eliminate. And then there was former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney’s $10,000 bet challenge to Perry, which fed into critics’ perception of Romney as rich and out-of-touch with the middle class.

And, Hagle said, candidates would do well to avoid pivoting into tired talking points.

“The thing for candidates to do is to come across as knowledgeable on a variety of issues. That usually means actually answering the questions,” he said. “It’s not necessarily that talking points are bad, but when they come across as too rehearsed, it can make a candidate look bad.”

Top-Tier Candidates: Trump, Bush, Walker, Carson
Donald Trump’s mission, say all three professors, is to remember that while loudness may have gotten him to the top of the polls, it won’t necessarily help him stay there. Instead, they say, Trump would do well to stay cool and calm — and act like the president he says he wants to be.

“Don’t be too outlandish — if it is a boring debate, that is good for Trump,” said Corrigan.

Sabato said Trump should want to “surprise people,” having already made it to the center of the stage and the top of the polls.

“He’s in the driver’s seat. He doesn’t have to attack other candidates,” Sabato said. “He needs to project calm determination, stay issue-oriented, and make viewers believe he could be president.”

“Trump is in the driver’s seat. He doesn’t have to attack other candidates,” Sabato said.

By being aggressive, Hagle said, Trump could put other candidates on the defensive — not a bad thing. Then again, they could simply choose to ignore him.

“Of course, that might not be possible. That’s when my recommendation is to discuss the message. That is, stick to the issues, while not engaging the messenger,” Hagle said.

“Trump is actually in an interesting position,” he added. “If he approaches the event as he has others, aggressive and bombastic, he will likely turn off some voters who might not see him as being sufficiently presidential. That’s particularly true if he doesn’t provide specifics in his answers. On the other hand, he’s been successful in his approach and if he doesn’t perform to expectations he may turn off his supporters.”

With a name recognition rivaling only Trump among the top candidates, Jeb Bush is likely planning a more diverse strategy for the debate — be passionate, be pleasant, but don’t necessarily be a Bush.

“Make sure you show that people should not confuse your moderate manner with a lack of passion,” said Corrigan, who has written a book about Bush’s two-term tenure as Florida governor from 1999 to 2007.

Sabato recommends Bush avoid easily exploitable gaffes that have dogged him the past few weeks — suggesting that Americans “work longer hours,” recommending “phasing-out Medicare,” and downplaying the need to spend money on women’s health.

“He (Jeb) would be helped if he could answer the question everyone hears constantly: ‘Yet another Bush?’”

Then there’s that other question for Jeb Bush, both a son and brother of former presidents.

“Just getting through it with no gaffes and leaving a pleasant impression is enough,” Sabato said. “He would be helped if he could answer the question everyone hears constantly: ‘Yet another Bush?’ ”

Rounding out the top third, Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker and former neurosurgeon Ben Carson should capitalize on the rare opportunity to introduce themselves to a national audience.

“Show there is more to you than your fight with unions,” Corrigan recommended for Walker, who as governor has resisted Wisconsin public-sector unions’ collective bargaining, tenure and pension benefits.

Similarly, Sabato said Walker should “tell people who he is and what he’d do as president.”

“Walker needs to hammer home his success in Wisconsin, which conservatives love,” he said.

“Walker needs to hammer home his success in Wisconsin, which conservatives love,” said Sabato.

Carson, who consistently polls among the top five GOP candidates despite little staff or organization, “has got to find a way to expand his appeal,” Sabato said.

“Someone who has never served in public office has extra burdens to assure people he could handle the presidency,” he said. “Otherwise, his current support could be his ceiling.”

Hagle said by and large, the higher up a candidate is in the polls, the more steady and knowledgeable they should strive to appear.

“They will need to justify their top-tier status,” he said. “That means being able to field a wide range of questions in an authoritative way.”

Second-Tier Candidates: Huckabee and the Senators
Mike Huckabee, who won the 2008 Iowa primary, comes into the 2016 race with years of name recognition, but he’s not been a recently elected official, as are the three U.S. senators who share the second tier with him — Cruz of Texas, Rubio of Florida, and Paul of Kentucky.

Despite coming across as a likeable figure, Huckabee, said Sabato, “needs to answer the questions, ‘Why president? Why now? Why am I the future and not the past?’”

Some polls actually have Sen. Marco Rubio of Florida among the top tier of candidates, which prompts Corrigan to wonder if the first-term senator’s strategy of proposing fresh new leadership is enough to excite conservative voters.

Sabato said Rubio shares a common problem with Sen. Rand Paul of Kentucky, in that both have “drifted down” in recent polls since entering the race. Just within the past few days, Paul’s campaign has suffered from headlines about staffers jumping ship and spilling details of an errant candidate.

“Rubio’s story is powerful; he should find a way to tell it briefly.”

“They need to restart the engines (and) remind their supporters and might-be-backers why they are suited for the Oval Office,” Sabato said. “Rubio’s story is powerful; he should find a way to tell it briefly.”

Rubio is a Cuban-American whose parents emigrated from the island in 1956. Rubio has built a successful career in local and state politics from a young age.

Cruz, who was actually the first entry into the 2016 GOP primary race, is “normally a star” in debates, Sabato said, and has two-and-a-half years of speaking experience in the Senate.

“Since loads of viewers will never have seen him in a debate format, he could exceed expectations and leave a strong impression,” Sabato said. “He’s the one candidate who won’t waste any of his time and is very unlikely to misspeak.”

The Remaining Two
New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie and Ohio Gov. John Kasich have the advantage of being current governors in key battleground states — but Sabato and Hagle said the two men clearly need to communicate a broader appeal. While Christie needs to re-convince voters who have supported him in the past — he nearly ran for the office in 2012 — they said Kasich has a uniquely powerful story of a lower-class upbringing that can help him against wealthier candidates such as Trump and Bush.

“Ohio, Ohio, Ohio, the super-swing state of 2016,” said Sabato. “Why has (Kasich) succeeded in Ohio, and how will he apply this to D.C.?”

Hagle said such lower-tier candidates will likely get a pass from viewers if they take the opportunity to take some jabs at the others.

“I still don’t think they should be throwing elbows at this point, but they might be a little more forceful,” he said.

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