From Cleveland, Ohio
With a little less than six months until the Iowa Caucuses, a large group of big name Republicans will gather Thursday night in the Buckeye State for their first debate of the 2016 race for President, as the winnowing of the GOP field begins in earnest.
“The game plan is to win,” said Ben Carson, the retired neurosurgeon who like other Republicans has struggled in the polls during the recent surge by GOP frontrunner Donald Trump.
“There are so many people who think that doctors only know medicine,” Carson told me. “It will be an eye opening experience for them,” he predicted of his debate performance.
For Carson and the other nine Republicans on the main stage, there are many choices for how to use what might only be about 10-11 minutes of time in this debate – one of them is to focus on introducing yourself to the voters and not attack others.
“I’m not going to worry about the other candidates,” Gov. Scott Walker told reporters the other day in Iowa, maybe hinting at his main goal in the debate.
“We keep losing over and over again when we run as Democrat-lite,” Sen. Ted Cruz (R-TX) told me, making clear that part of his answers at the debate will certainly highlight his willingness to take on Republican leaders, and to urge a more aggressive effort within the GOP.
Since the Texas Republican has refused to criticize Donald Trump, it might be that Cruz could use his time to target Jeb Bush, who may be seen by many as most emblematic of the GOP Establishment when it comes to this debate.
The only candidate to make a splash on the day before the debate was Sen. Marco Rubio (R-FL), who took photos with travelers at the airport and then drew thunderous cheers from hundreds jammed into a bar in Cleveland.
“This election is a generational choice about what kind of country we will be in the 21st century,” Rubio said in a rally that had the air of an election event being held a few days before voters go to the polls, not six months.
Rubio was introduced by Ohio state Treasurer Josh Mandel, whose endorsement has given the Florida Senator an inroad into this state’s Republican establishment at a time when many GOP officials might instead want to support Ohio Gov. John Kasich.
“We talked about trying to get one hundred people together,” Mandel said with a big smile, “and we’re looking out here at about 400 Clevelanders.”
After sticking around in the top tier earlier this year, Rubio has slipped in recent weeks and needs a boost to avoid losing contact in the polls with Jeb Bush and Scott Walker, who trail Donald Trump.
As for Trump, he said on Wednesday that he is hoping for a “civil” debate, and that he would not attack others unless they go after him first.
Four years ago in the early debates, Republicans did not gang up on frontrunner Mitt Romney; instead they used the time to highlight their own record, trying to become the alternative to Romney.
If that gets repeated this time, then maybe Jeb Bush might be the target of some jabs from other Republicans.
The Pre-Debate Debate
The decision by Fox News to limit the main stage to the top ten Republicans in the polls means that seven other Republicans will get some air time at a forum which starts four hours before the main event.
That will involve, Rick Perry, Bobby Jindal, Rick Santorum, Carly Fiorina, Lindsey Graham, George Pataki and Jim Gilmore.
There will also be a two-tiered debate next at the Ronald Reagan Library in California on September 16, as the GOP field starts could well be trimmed by the debates in coming weeks.
Four years ago, former Minnesota Gov. Tim Pawlenty dropped out after passing on an obvious opportunity to criticize Mitt Romney on health care; so, it’s not too early to wonder if the GOP field is being slimmed down already.