With just two days until the first Republican presidential debate, all eyes are fixed on Donald Trump, the unpredictable, brash, billionaire real estate mogul who has found himself at the top of the polls – and sucking up nearly all of the 2016 oxygen in the process.
The never-shy, always-controversial Trump will almost certainly score the coveted center-stage slot on the Cleveland debate stage. And that puts his fellow candidates in a tough position: How do they deal with this boastful birther? Do they engage with him? Do they try to talk with him seriously and substantively? Do they shrug him off as some kind of carnival barker? Do they attack him? Do they avoid him altogether?
It’s a tricky balancing act; after all, he does have a quarter of the GOP electorate behind him, and the more serious candidates lagging in the polls will surely be wary of alienating Trump backers by dissing The Donald.
“Donald Trump is the sun around which all the planets — the other candidates — will be orbiting,” Steve Schmidt, who served as a senior adviser to Sen. John McCain’s 2008 presidential campaign, told msnbc. “… It’s about knowing when to engage with him and knowing when to ignore him.”
John Weaver, the senior adviser to GOP presidential candidate Ohio Gov. John Kasich, recently took to Twitter to describe the upcoming debate, with an apparent reference to Trump. “Imagine a NASCAR driver mentally preparing for a race knowing one of the drivers will be drunk. That’s what prepping for this debate is like,” he said.
Trump – who has made headlines for controversial remarks about undocumented immigrants and McCain’s war record – is downplaying expectations of his own performance. He told NBC’s “Meet The Press” over the weekend, “I don’t want to be unreal. I want to be me. I have to be me.” The reality TV star also added, “I think that frankly I’d like to discuss the issues. I’m not looking to take anybody out or be nasty to anybody.”
Ford O’Connell, a GOP strategist and another former McCain adviser, didn’t buy Trump’s talk. “He’s going to come and debate,” said O’Connell, adding that his M.O. is “undersell and overdeliver.”
Some candidates have explicitly said they won’t be afraid to trade words with Trump if the situation calls for it. Former Texas Gov. Rick Perry – who is considered a bubble candidate who may or may not make the top-10 candidate debate cut – recently told Fox News, “If Donald Trump wants to sit on the stage and talk about solutions, I’m happy to have that conversation. But if all he’s going to do is throw invectives, then I’m going to push back, and I’m going to push back hard.”
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Similarly, while New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie said on Tuesday’s “Morning Joe” on MSNBC that “I think focusing on any one particular candidate doesn’t make any sense,” he later added, “I’ll say exactly what I think. If I believe there is something that needs to be said on that stage Thursday night, I’ll say it.”
Other candidates will seemingly try to steer the discussion away from Trump and towards policy. Hogan Gidley, a spokesman for former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee, insisted to msnbc that the Republican will focus “less on the other nine candidates on the stage and more what he wants to accomplish as president,” including jobs, national security and “restoring morality.” Similarly, Sergio Gor, a spokesman for Sen. Rand Paul’s presidential campaign, said the libertarian-minded candidate will highlight what he wants to get done if he’s elected, including scrapping the current tax code, protecting American citizens’ privacy, laying out a vision to keep the country safe.Which strategy will pay off? O’Connell said it depends on the candidate. If you’re doing well in the polls – like former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush or Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker – “engaging Trump is not the smartest option. Stick to the issues and stay above the fray no matter what Trump does. No need to roll in the mud just yet.”
But if you’re a lower-tiered candidate, like Christie, Paul, or Huckabee, “Tussling with Trump could get you headlines, it could give you momentum. But Trump punches pretty mightily, so you have to be careful.”
Stuart Stevens, who served as a chief strategist to Mitt Romney’s 2012 presidential campaign, and whose firm is advising Team Christie, said a lot of the reaction will likely depend on what Trump says. “If he’s talking about himself and just making claims, most will probably ignore it. If he’s saying something people find offensive, I think they’ll call him out on it.”
Stevens added, “Debates are so unpredictable. If Donald Trump wants to be a serious candidate, this is an opportunity for him to be serious.”
Late Tuesday, Fox News unveiled who made the cut, as the network is allowing only the top 10 candidates in the massive GOP field to participate, based on an average of five national polls. The candidates who did not qualify will participate in a separate debate – which critics have been calling the “kids’ table” – on Fox earlier in the day.
According to NBC’s latest calculation based on the latest polling, those in the top 10 currently are Trump (23.2%), Bush (12.8%), Walker (10.6%), retired neurosurgeon Ben Carson (6.6%), Huckabee (6.6%), Sen. Ted Cruz of Texas (6.2%), Sen. Marco Rubio of Florida (5.2%), Paul (4.8%), Christie (3.4%) and Kasich (2.8%).
That means Perry, former Sen. Rick Santorum of Pennsylvania, Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal, and former Hewlett-Packard CEO Carly Fiorina will be left in the cold.