THE BIG IDEA: Good morning from California, where the Reagan Library will host tonight’s Trump Show.
The Donald said in Los Angeles last night that he’s ready for the other candidates to attack him during the 8 p.m. Eastern debate. Previewing his message, he promised to make America respected again in the world if elected. What was billed as “a major national security speech” clocked in at just 13 minutes and included no specifics. “We’re gonna make our military SO big and SO strong and SO great and it will be SO powerful that I don’t think we’re ever going to have to use it,” he said on the deck of the USS Iowa. George Short, 73, an Army veteran at the speech, told my colleague Katie Zezima that he supports the billionaire businessman because he’s got “B-A-L-L-S.” That’s a pretty adroit synthesis of what makes Trump so appealing to so many.
CNN wants the candidates to clash. Moderator Jake Tapper is telling people he wants the candidates to go after each other. CNN executives don’t want it to be CNN vs. Trump; they want it to be the field vs. Trump. Tapper’s favorite moment at the Fox debate in Cleveland was when Chris Christie and Rand Paul brawled over national security. “That’s how we’ve been crafting our questions, so that Senator X will respond to what Governor Y said about him or a policy he proposed, and try to encourage them to actually debate Lincoln-Douglas style as much as possible,” Tapper told the New York Times. To the Huffington Post, he described the contest as “a real dogfight.”
Does tonight’s debate shift the tenor of this race from flashy to substantive? That’s the question animating David Weigel’s preview on the Post’s front page. “For the people who study foreign policy and try to shape the national conversation, the simple answers from Carson and Trump are frustrating — yet totally understandable,” he writes. “The rise of the Islamic State has stoked panic among some conservative voters, but it has not defined their conversations. The GOP’s hawks have tried, with little success, to sober up the base.” Dick and Liz Cheney’s new book, for instance, sold just 14,000 copies last week, according to Nielsen’s BookScan.
Who gets tripped up by questions about U.S. foreign policy? You can count on someone looking unprepared. Hugh Hewitt, the conservative radio host who gets to ask questions, tripped up both Trump and Carson during interviews on his show. Their voters didn’t really care, but the audience will be a lot bigger this time.
Can Trump look like a statesman? He’s a talented showman, but the businessman cannot control the moderators or the producers who choose which camera shots the nation will see. Can the ex-reality TV show star use all the attacks coming his way to make himself look big and his attackers look small?
Will Ben Carson take any heat? He’s now second in every poll, gaining on Trump. Are the moderators going to give him extra scrutiny? Will anyone, particularly Trump, go after the former neurosurgeon? His mild-mannered style has offered a stark contrast with Trump that seems to work for him.
Is Carly ready to rumble? Trump and Carson are the two main outsiders in the GOP field. Fiorina got a bounce after the first debate but she still lags far behind in polling. The moderators will bait her over Trump’s disparaging remark last week about her face to Rolling Stone. She’s alluded to it on the campaign trail in recent days. But the former HP CEO may choose to pivot to policy and try to look substantive rather than getting in a street brawl. Not returning fire would make for less interesting television but could establish her as serious and thoughtful.
How angry will Jeb be? He was tepid and lackluster last time. Now he’s willing, even eager, to attack Trump. But he can’t look too angry if he wants to be presidential. “If fundamental decency is one of his calling cards, and if campaigning joyfully is one of his priorities, can he credibly become an attack dog?” Dan Balz wonders in his preview. “Bush won’t get lost on Wednesday, but he can ill-afford a debate in which he is viewed as just okay.”
Who does not criticize Trump? Ted Cruz will avoid hitting Trump. Rubio has tried to stay out of the fray, and he’ll try to show off some knowledge of foreign policy to assuage doubts about his youth. He wants to look serious amidst the circus. Will John Kasich follow suit?
Can Scott Walker get back into the conversation? He didn’t even use all of his allotted time in Cleveland and his devotion to talking points (he called himself “aggressively normal” at one point) made his performance unmemorable. Several of the Wisconsin governor’s prominent supporters warned Walker beat reporter Jenna Johnson that donations could dry up if he doesn’t do well tonight.
Can any of the four guys in the undercard debate use it as a springboard? CNN changed the rules to get Fiorina on the main stage. Rick Perry dropping out Friday and Jim Gilmore not making the cut means only four will be on stage at 6 p.m. Eastern. Will anyone pay attention? Bobby Jindal has relentlessly ridiculed Trump in recent days (releasing blistering web videos), but those punches won’t carry quite the same weight without Trump there to respond. Also present: Lindsey Graham, Rick Santorum and George Pataki.
Three final questions, from Dan Balz’s curtain-raiser —
- Can Kasich continue to be a distinctive presence — conservative and pragmatic at the same time?
- Who can consolidate conservative evangelicals —Cruz or Mike Huckabee?
- Chris Christie and Rand Paul tangled in Cleveland, but does either gain by going after the other?
After tonight, the next GOP debate is not until Oct. 28. It will focus on economics, air on CNBC and take place at the University of Colorado in Boulder. The first Democratic debate is Oct.13, in Las Vegas, on CNN.