For entertainment value, presidential debates typically rate somewhere between sitting in traffic and the QVC shopping channel. Candidates exchange views. Audiences applaud. There may be a zinger.
But the Republican debate on Wednesday promises to be a thornier affair, with possibly the biggest mouth in the US trading barbs with 10 rivals who would very much like to silence him – at least for a few polling cycles.
Adding to the spectacle will be a debate anchor, Jake Tapper, who has a reputation for asking tough, policy-oriented questions, and a host network, CNN, eager to seize a golden ratings opportunity.
To pique viewer interest, CNN has been touting the debate as a title fight and has constructed a debate stage at the Ronald Reagan presidential library and museum in Simi Valley, California, that features the Air Force One plane used by Reagan when he was president. “This is Round 2 of a heavyweight bout,” network president Jeff Zucker told the Los Angeles Times.
The result may be television truly worthy of the word “entertainment” – if not totally worthy, perhaps, of the national effort to pick a new president of the United States.
Donald Trump, the polling frontrunner whose penchant for combative self-promotion has set the tone so far, indulged in some pre-bout trash talk in an appearance on Monday night before thousands of excited fans in Dallas.
“I hear they are going after me,” Trump said of his opponents. “Whatever. Whatever.”
Trump is not wrong. As the days have ticked down to Wednesday’s faceoff at the Reagan library multiple Republican contenders for the White Househave taken swings at the real estate magnate.
Former technology executive Carly Fiorina dismissed Trump as an “entertainer”. Retired neurosurgeon Ben Carson, who was closing in on Trump in a new poll released on Tuesday, questioned his religious convictions. Louisiana governor Bobby Jindal called him “shallow” and “an egomaniac”.
“I think he believes that he can insult his way to the presidency,” former Florida governor Jeb Bush said of Trump.
The tangle of taunts would seem to cast Tapper, who made his name holding the Obama administration to account as a White House correspondent, in the role of playground monitor.
But Tapper, who will host the event with colleague Dana Bash and conservative talk radio star Hugh Hewitt, said at the weekend that he would try to encourage something more elevated.
“What the team and I have been doing is trying to craft questions that in most cases pit candidates against the other, specific candidates on the stage, on issues where they disagree, whether it’s policy or politics, or leadership,” Tapper told a network colleague. “I am going to try to get them to address each other and actually debate.”
Alternatively, the audience might be treated to New Jersey governor Chris Christie reprising a Trump impression he unveiled Monday night on Fox Newshost Megyn Kelly’s show. “Ratings, Megyn. Total ratings,” Christie said, joking about why Kelly should invite him on air more often. “Big! Big! Very big!”
Should the candidates decide to engage one another on the issues, they would have many areas of disagreement to choose from:
- Trump has said “there is no government in Iraq” while Bush has called for closer coordination with Iraqi officials.
- Carson has questioned Trump’s plan to deport 11 million undocumented migrants.
- Former Arkansas governor Mike Huckabee has called for a new American Revolution to resist same-sex marriage…
- … while Florida senator Marco Rubio has deferred to the US supreme court on the issue.
“I don’t know if bringing out a whip and a lion tamer’s chair would help,” Tapper said. “But we’re just going to try to enforce the rules and ask the questions, and see what happens.”
An audience on par with the 24 million who watched the first Republican debate would be about 50 times larger than CNN’s average daily viewing audience last year, which was down 9% from 2013.
The advancing calendar, meanwhile, has created discomfort among the candidates in the six weeks since the first debate. At the start of August, Trump was polling at just under 25% nationally and his main rival, Bush, was on about half that. Now Trump is touching 30%, Carson has climbed to around 17% and Bush has sunk to around 8%, in survey averages.
A New York Times / CBS News poll has Trump at 27% among Republican primary and caucus voters, with Carson rising from 6% to 23%. Bush and Walker, meanwhile, fell to 6% and 2% support, respectively.
With every day that Trump defies political gravity, his Republican rivals grow more desperate to make a mark, to emerge from the pack before actual voting starts. (The Iowa caucuses are still 20 weeks away.)
The fastest way to make that mark may be to take on Trump, and there seems no better opportunity on the horizon to do that than Wednesday night’s debate.
On his visit Monday to Dallas, Trump promised that his guard would be up. After conceding that Texas senator and presidential rival Ted Cruz “happens to be a good guy”, Trump warned that his approval was conditional.
“Now if he comes out attacking me on Wednesday night,” Trump said, “I will take it back immediately.”