Donald Trump is on the Center of GOP Debate

The first thing the 10 candidates vying to win the opening Republican presidential primary debate of the 2016 campaign need to keep in mind is it probably can't be won.

Except maybe if you're Donald Trump, who has so far shown himself impervious to political punishment for his free-wheeling, flamboyant style as an unrepentant controversialist.

For the rest of the lot taking the stage in Cleveland Thursday night, it's all about maximizing their moment. And with 90-second caps on answers and 30-second limits on responses to rival candidates, opportunities to shine in the 90-minute debate on Fox News will be few and far between.

The leading candidates -- Trump, Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker and Jeb Bush -- will likely get more time under the lights because of their elevated polling position. But that extra attention also means more chances for a screw-up. As front-runners, they'll have the largest targets on their backs and may have to fend off the toughest queries.

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Eager to steal a portion of Friday's headline, the other candidates that make up the top 10 will be angling for a chance to leave a lasting impression. But launching an attack poses its own risk at getting smacked down and handing a front-runner an opportunity to exude strength under siege.

Undoubtedly the biggest elephant on the stage is Trump, who crashed the race in mid-June and has dominated coverage of the primary ever since. He's a complete wild card and is expected to be the center of any storyline coming out of the showdown.

"The main debate will be dominated by Trump which probably does hurt the second tier more than it does first tier candidates," says Dick Wadhams, a GOP consultant and former chairman of the Colorado Republican Party.

But there's also a possibility that this first debate won't live up to the hype. The candidates are just getting their campaign sea legs. They will be battling nerves in their first prime-time performance. They will be wary about making a mistake under the glare of the spotlight. This is the first time they'll have a real chance to feel each other out and size each other up, standing next to each other on a stage in front of a live national audience. It may end up an exercise in calculated caution.


"It's bound to be a let down," says Todd Graham, a two-time collegiate debate coach of the year and director of debate at Southern Illinois University. "With three or four questions a piece, you won't see much out of them. You get better answers as the debates get going."

Which is to say, this is only the starting line. (Remember, GOP presidential nominee Mitt Romney didn't even participate in the first primary debate last time and at this point in the nascent 2012 campaign Rick Perry wielded a Trump-sized polling lead nationally.) By the time people begin voting next winter -- just under six months from now -- this debate is more likely to be a distant memory than a mammoth event.

But for the next week or so, it will be the center of the political universe and therefore a chance to leave an imprint on a wide-open, volatile race in which any edge is better than none.

Here's the U.S. News scouting report on what each candidate must do to claim some sort of victory Thursday night, as well as possible tripwires:

Donald Trump

The Donald has signaled he'll play nice with his rivals, saying his intention is to be "highly respectful," while downplaying expectations about his own performance. But that approach will be tested if anyone decides to propel a slingshot at him, a likelihood given his double-digit national polling lead. If he responds with the same insults and put downs he's deployed over the past month to quash critics, it'll surprise no one and may just work. What could make him a far more threatening candidate going forward, though, is by arming himself with specific ideas on the immigration, trade and veterans issues he's built his ascent around. And when he's attacked, humor might be the best way to shake it off. "Think about some funny lines regarding your hair, wealth, and penchant for self-aggrandizement," suggested The Brookings Institute' Darrell West in a blog post dispensing debate advice to Trump. "You could joke that the most dangerous place for someone to be is between you and a TV camera." Everyone knows Trump can throw a punch, but restraint may be the most telling sign the former reality television star is seriously stepping up his game.

Jeb Bush

No one on the stage is less likely to lob a verbal smackdown than Bush. The former Florida governor has built his campaign around optimism, inclusion and civility. His goal is to play statesman, stay above the fray and make the rest of the contenders look smaller in comparison.

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"You're not going to expect any over-the-top, angry rhetoric, an attention getting smear or a cheap shot at a colleague. That's not going to be his M.O," says Al Cardenas, a former chairman of the American Conservative Union and Bush backer. "A strong leader does not need to shout, a strong leader does not need to provoke. A strong leader needs to stay the course, be confident in his decisions." But a strong leader may need to show that he has a spine to match the mood of an antsy Republican base sick of political-speak. That means unfurling crisp, clean answers that ooze authority. Bush has shown himself to be rusty in similar question-and-answer situations, stumbling through his words and flubbing answers. Yet the biggest risk for Bush is looking weak if he chooses to glide by a withering attack rather than return with his own artillery.

Scott Walker

Conservatives love the Wisconsin governor's domestic record. His prime challenge is convincing them he can assume the role of commander-in-chief. Walker was less publicly visible this spring because he hunkered down with foreign policy experts and briefing books to smarten up. This is the moment where that work needs to pay off. A shaky answer on the Iran nuclear deal or the Islamic State group could give his supporters pause and his rivals an opening to make a case against him. Walker has a strong case to make that he's a fresh face who's also been able to score legislative and political wins in a blue state. But he would help himself if he made his case with a bit more vigor and gusto, much like he did in his splashy speech in Iowa last January.

Mike Huckabee

The main competitors of the former Arkansas governor at the moment are Ben Carson and Ted Cruz. This trio occupy the same space on the ideological right and have been polling strikingly close to each other in national surveys. Huckabee's advantage: He's been through this before in 2008. As a former talk show host himself, he knows how to land a soundbite on cue and with impact, as evidenced by his inflammatory remark last week about President Barack Obama's Iran deal. "He will take the Israelis and march them to the door of the oven," Huckabee said, instantly provoking outrage from liberals. He may need a similarly provocative statement to make his mark here. His worst case scenario is being lost in a stage full of fresh faces.

Ben Carson

Carson's camp views themselves as in the opposite position of Huckabee. Whereas Huckabee is widely known, Carson, the political novice, remains a mystery to nearly half of the GOP electorate. Yet he still polls at the top of the second tier. Carson campaign manager Barry Bennett tells U.S. News he views this inaugural debate as simply an opportunity for greater awareness. "In essence, we win simply by being there. Dr. Ben Carson is both the least known and by far [has] the best favorability ratio," Bennett says. "If we can acquire name identification parity through these debates, instead of having to purchase it, I think we have the most to gain." Carson's soft, lethargic speaking style may pose a challenge in an atmosphere that rewards energy and quickness.

Ted Cruz

Cruz, the Texas senator, may be the most adroit debater on the stage. He can naturally speak without notes on a myriad of topics and deliver his lines with panache. He also seems like the most likely to throw the first jab, especially if handed an opportunity to rap the establishment, or as he likes to call it, "the Washington cartel." "He has to bark and nip at the heels of the leaders. He will seize expertly on any less-than-artful comments. He is the best debater and he will be aggressive," predicts Bill Miller, a GOP lobbyist in Texas. Cruz's mantra is that the GOP needs to paint in "bold colors, not pale pastels," so it's hard to imagine he won't practice what he preaches given this highly watched opportunity, which could draw the largest audience in cable news history.

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Marco Rubio

The Florida senator appears to be stuck between a rock and a hard place. While the Beltway press has gushed over his talent, his poll numbers have failed to meet those expectations. He's considered one of the few electable favorites of the establishment, yet still needs to prove himself to a base wary of a well-spoken youthful senator with a thin national resume. For months, Rubio has been attempting to carve out a space for himself as the authoritative voice on foreign policy. Look for him to try to accentuate that -- especially with hawkish Sen. Lindsey Graham relegated to the second debate. But don't expect Rubio to be goaded into a fight with his home state rival Bush or his Senate colleagues. Team Rubio is playing long-ball and believes their moment will eventually come.

Rand Paul

The Kentucky senator has taken a beating in the media recently for having sputtered in summer polling. Successfully bridging the gap between mainstream Republicans and libertarians has proven harder than imagined for a cerebral politician who doesn't seem to have found much joy in campaigning. That's why debate coach Todd Graham says it would be smart for Paul to return to his roots with a clear signal. "He should move back to the libertarian base," says Graham. "If he leaves libertarians hanging, he's just like the other Republicans out there." The audience responses to Paul's answers on foreign policy will be one of the most fascinating moments of the night. He's clearly out of favor with the interventionist wing of the party, but navigating those questions without incurring boos like his father did will be a test of his political agility. Paul's advisers are confident he'll be prepared. "I have been in debate prep for several presidential candidates. Two of the persons I debated in practice were elected president. And Rand Paul is the most brilliant of them all," says Paul adviser Doug Wead.

Chris Christie

Like Cruz, the blunt-talking New Jersey governor may have the most to gain by going on the offensive. Christie is in desperate need of a breakout moment to remind Republicans why they were so engrossed with his straight-talking, no-nonsense profile in 2012. "He needs a strong performance to engender some campaign momentum and ensure he safely reaches the second [debate] a month later," says Aaron Kall, director of debate at the University of Michigan. Christie's favorite foil over the past two years has been Paul. If they engage again, it could be one of the liveliest clashes of the evening.

John Kasich

If anyone has a crowd advantage it'll be Kasich, the sitting governor of Ohio whose late entrance into the race provided him a strategic bump into the top ten despite a head-scratching announcement speech. In addition to touting his Buckeye State record – which should win easy applause given the location – Kall says he'd be surprised if Kasich didn't mention that Republicans have never won the presidency without Ohio and noting that the 2016 GOP convention will be held on the very same stage a year from now. Given his candidacy is just two weeks old, Kasich doesn't need to score a win. He's just happy to be here.

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