What to Expect When You’re Expecting a GOP Presidential Debate

Will Jeb Bush finally unleash Jeb Bush tonight? Tonight could be the night! (It's probably not the night.)

Will Jeb Bush finally unleash Jeb Bush tonight? Tonight could be the night! (It’s probably not the night.)

Tonight, starting at 4 pm Seattle time, Republican presidential candidates will debate on the Fox Business Channel. (You can watch the debates streaming live on foxbusiness.com.) We’ll be live-tweeting all four hours on the Civic Skunkworks Twitter handle. The first debate is between Chris Christie, Mike Huckabee, Bobby Jindal, and Rick Santorum. The main event starts at 6 pm, and there are only eight candidates this time: Donald Trump, Ben Carson, Marco Rubio, Ted Cruz, Jeb Bush, John Kasich, Carly Fiorina, and, for some reason, Rand Paul. So! What should you expect?

• The pack will turn on Rubio. The supposed frontrunner (once you ignore the two real frontrunners, Carson and Trump, who everyone for some reason just assumes will miraculously disappear at some point between now and February when the voting starts) opened up big ol’ can of Looking Presidential at the last debate, and it won him a decent little bump in the polls. Trump might take a shot at Rubio, and Bush might muster up the courage to try it again. Meanwhile, Rubio is going to try to look even more presidential tonight, which is a position that many candidates have tried and failed to adopt. It’s the classic debate conundrum: the better you do, the better people expect you to be. Rubio doesn’t always do well in high-pressure situations, so the chance of a slip-up is high.

• Meanwhile, everyone is going to watch Bush for signs of life. He’s failed miserably in every single one of the debates so far. He hasn’t had a good moment since…actually, I can’t remember a time in the 2016 presidential cycle in which Bush had a good moment. He has to do something tonight, and he has to look competent while doing it. Otherwise, the media will be all over him as a failure tomorrow. Which brings me to my next point…

• Everyone will try to pummel the media. It worked so well for them last time, at least within their own party. The Republican base loathes the media, and they love it when a candidate wags his finger at the moderators. But you can only do that every so often; if you complain about the media all the time, you start to look like a little whiny baby. Republicans are dangerously close to crossing that line. If Rubio, say, is asked about, say, his ridiculous transportation plan, which cuts gas taxes by 80 percent and basically destroys the idea of federal funding for public transportation, and if he responds to that line of questioning by claiming it’s a gotcha question, that could make him look weak and childish. Or it could pay off! Who knows?

• This debate will likely be louder than others. We’ve gone from eleven candidates to ten candidates to eight candidates on the main stage over the last few weeks. This means more candidates will have more time to talk. Generally, Trump does well when he’s given more screen time. Will anyone else break out? Will Rubio deflate when given an opportunity to elaborate on his insane tax plan? At least one of these outcomes is likely. I expect Fiorina and Kasich to flounder—neither one has found the right footing for this kind of a stage—but there’s an outside possibility that they might be able to create a moment that will pump them a little oxygen for the next few weeks.

• At the kids’ table debate, Christie will likely dominate. Look, he’s up against a boring bigot (Santorum), a condescending twit (Jindal), and an insensate hate-speech factory (Huckabee). If Christie can’t shine on that stage, it’s time to pack it in.

• Watch Ted Cruz. For real, keep your eye on that guy. He’s got a plan to consolidate the establishment-hating wing of the party and take on the eventual establishment frontrunner, and it’s starting to look like that plan could be a legitimate avenue to winning the Republican nomination. And finally…

• Rand Paul doesn’t matter. Never has, never will.

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Paul Constant
Paul Constant has written about politics, books, and film for Newsweek, The Progressive, the Utne Reader, and alternative weeklies around the country.