There’s a chill in the Washington, D.C., air today as we head into the second GOP debate, which is taking place tonight at the Reagan Library in sunny Simi Valley, California. This is a sign that we have now entered into a new era of the campaign—the post-Labor Day phase where voters are presumably paying more attention.
And the stakes are high not just for the candidates. Yours truly has been assigned the task of writing yet another “what to watch for at the debate” column. So instead of reciting a laundry list of things to watch for (that’s for losers!), my goal is to come up with seven mostly overlooked things to watch for tonight. Let’s get started.
1. The first question. From CNN’s John King beginning a 2012 debate by asking Newt Gingrich about having an “open marriage” to Fox News beginning the last one by asking the candidates to raise their hands if they might not support the GOP nominee, there seems to be an expectation that the first debate question should be a doozy. So what will it be? “Do you support shutting down the government over Planned Parenthood” (Trump and Carson are taking heat for having not weighed in). “Would you tear up the Iran deal on Day One?” “Do you think Donald Trump is bad for the GOP?” Or maybe the moderators will use the venue as an opportunity to ask a question about Ronald Reagan? Lacking a mole at CNN, it’s impossible to predict. All I can say is don’t be late.
2. Will the lack of applause impact the outcome? The New York Times reports that “Though the Fox News moderators exhorted the crowd to be enthusiastic, CNN will ask the audience not to cheer or boo during the actual debate.” Make no mistake—this could be a huge deal. Consider how sterile the Fox News “undercard” debate felt. At least part of the reason was that the hall was empty. It’s really hard to overestimate the importance of crowd participation. Seriously, go back and watch Newt Gingrich’s attack on John King during the 2012 CNN debate in South Carolina. Each time Gingrich hit King, the crowd applauded. Would that moment have worked without the applause? Even the best of lines and zingers can fall flat when greeted by crickets. If you don’t believe me, just ask Ted Cruz. As the Washington Examiner’s Eddie Scarry observed, “Without the positive and loud enforcement from a friendly audience, Trump's performance may be perceived by viewers at home as having lost its edge. It may also hurt the candidates who are expected to confront Trump, like Jeb Bush and Carly Fiorina, who are under pressure by donors to prove they are viable candidates. An otherwise well-timed swipe from them may appear to miss the mark if it’s greeted by silence from the audience.”
3. Will Dana Bash channel Megyn Kelly? Everyone is focused on moderators Jake Tapper (this will be the first debate he has moderated) and Hugh Hewitt (the popular conservative radio host who recently tangled with Donald Trump). But few people have mentioned CNN’s chief political correspondent, Dana Bash, who will also be refereeing tonight’s bout. There is certainly potential that, in light of the exchange between Megyn Kelly and Donald Trump during the first debate, Bash would have every incentive to press Trump on some of the things he has said about women—including comments he made about Kelly after the last debate.
4. Will Carly Fiorina go after Donald Trump? Jake Tapper has hinted that his goal is to stir up more exchanges like we saw between Chris Christie and Rand Paul the last time. And since that last debate, we have certainly witnessed an increase in turf warfare, as candidates vie for ownership of their “lane” or “niche.” Ted Cruz and Mike Huckabee—both attempting to be the “evangelical” candidate in Iowa—fell out after a Huckabee aide blocked Cruz from stealing Huck’s thunder at a rally for Kim Davis in Kentucky. And both Ben Carson and Carly Fiorina have had battles with Trump (all three are vying to be the “outsider” candidate) since the last debate. But this is Fiorina’s first time on stage with The Donald, and whereas Carson (who has surged in the polls since the last debate) seems to be mild-mannered and conflict averse, Fiorina seems to relish the fight. What’s more, Trump’s comments about her “face”—and the fact that she’s the only woman on stage and a cancer survivor, to boot—seem to suggest that she has the clear moral high ground to go after Trump in a way that nobody else on or offstage can. Honestly, she might be the only one who is feisty enough, popular enough, and quick-witted enough to lecture The Donald—and maybe even find a chink in his armor.
5. Will anyone’s lack of policy chops be exposed? Hugh Hewitt’s “gotcha” question(s) to Donald Trump about the Quds force and various terrorist leaders was actually predictable to anyone who is a fan of Hewitt’s show. (Note to the debate participants: Read Lawrence Wright’s The Looming Tower and Peter Baker’s Days of Fire before tonight.) I would argue that Hewitt, who is a conservative, is performing a service by vetting the candidates to ensure the Republican nominee is prepared to a) take on Hillary and b) be Commander in Chief. Everyone expects Hewitt’s victim tonight will be Trump, but don’t be so sure. Other candidates (like Ben Carson) have clear deficiencies in foreign policy knowledge. My guess is that Hewitt will trip up someone tonight—and it very well might be someone we would least expect.
6. Does a ‘make or break’ debate cause candidates try too hard? Former Baltimore Oriole John Lowenstein once boasted: “I never look at the standings until August. You just play hard and see where it gets you.” When asked by sports reporter Richard Justice if he then starts paying attention and worrying, Lowenstein quipped: “By then it’s too late.” Not everyone can afford such a zenlike attitude. Chris Christie recently hinted to Jimmy Fallon that he would be bringing the heat tonight. Other candidates, who have dropped in the polls since the last debate, might be feeling a tad desperate. Rand Paul, who is struggling in the polls, has promised to expose Trump as a “fake conservative” tonight. But he’s not the only one who might feel this is a make-or-break moment. “I really hope to be aggressive and make the case that we’re ready to wreak havoc on Washington,” Scott Walker recently said on CNN. Having precipitously dropped in the polls since the first debate, Walker, who is a temperamentally soft-spoken Midwesterner, might feel pressure to have a breakout moment. Sometimes it’s good to have something to prove, but sometimes this desperation leads us to say things that don’t make sense. Do we really want someone to “wreak havoc” on Washington? I’m reminded of Mitt Romney’s line about being “severely conservative.”
7. Is this the last “junior varsity” debate? To accommodate the large number of candidates, cable news outlets started hosting these undercard debates featuring candidates whose polling didn’t put them in the top-tier. But with Carly Fiorina now elevated (thanks to the Fox News “happy hour” debate) and Rick Perry out of the race (also, maybe thanks to the Fox News jayvee debate) might this be the last time we see these candidates on the stage? Will there be much interest in making sure George Pataki gets more airtime? Probably not. But if the “kiddie table” gets canceled (or relegated to a “forum” taking place even earlier in the day), that’s bad news for Bobby Jindal and Rick Santorum—the two candidates who probably have a legitimate argument for inclusion at the “grown-up table.”
The usual caveats apply; nobody knows what’s going to happen tonight. Pre-debate coverage is usually about as accurate as pre-game coverage on the NFL. Watching Terry Bradshaw or Howie Long opine on what to expect is as much entertainment as it is predictive. If you’re lucky, they give you one or two things to watch for, they make you a more educated consumer of information, and they help you see the game in a more enlightened way. But in terms of predictions? Yeah, they’re not always terrific.
Along those lines, you might have noticed that I didn’t mention Jeb Bush. That’s merely one of the many glaring omissions on this list. I didn’t mention him because his task is obvious and boring. He either shows up, or he doesn’t. The fact that I don’t have more to say about him is indicative of the problems he faces.