How do you debate a body slammer like Donald Trump? On August 6, at the first primary debate of the season, Trump's competitors for the 2016 Republican presidential nomination will find out. The question is, do they find out the hard way, or will any of the nine others concoct a plan to dethrone this unanticipated king of the hill?
For a variety of reasons, devising a strategy against Trump is difficult: He is utterly unpredictable. He has a knack for ad hominen attacks and an eagerness to draw blood. He is ahead in the polls. Then there is the volatility of the debate format itself. As live television, these are highly combustible events, something the combustible Donald Trump understands far better than his less TV-centric rivals. While the other candidates have been out on the campaign trail, meeting and greeting voters, Trump has set up shop behind cameras and microphones. For Trump, August 6 in Cleveland is just one more installment of a reality TV show that has been a ratings phenom all summer long.
So how should the others approach Trump? Several options exist, all of them risky and none of them easy to shoehorn into the tricky milieu of an unscripted live telecast.
IGNORE HIM. This tactic requires the debaters to envision Trump as a hungry crocodile and make it their business to stay out of his way. Here is where on-stage placement matters. Those positioned in close physical proximity to Trump--the front-runners, presumably -- are likelier to get their heads bitten off than those not directly in his field of vision.
Among the leading candidates, a strong case can be made for ignoring Trump in the debate, or at least trying to. Why waste your brief allotment of time by taking his bait, when floating above the nonsense could make you look statesmanlike by comparison? Yet ignoring Trump carries risks. No presidential contender can afford to appear passive, and the tactic works only to the extent that he ignores you back.
DENOUNCE HIM. With the exceptions of Rick Perry and Lindsey Graham, other Republican presidential contenders have treated Trump gingerly for fear of alienating his supporters. The debate spotlight offers a golden opportunity to call Trump's bluff, and political observers will be watching closely to see which of his rivals seizes that platform. With safety in numbers, it is not inconceivable that various candidates could join forces against him in a dog-pile. Would that hurt Trump by pushing him to the fringe, or help by reinforcing his anti-establishment credentials?
Individually or collectively, outright repudiation constitutes a difficult maneuver in a live debate. Any candidate willing to denounce Trump must wedge the attack into what is sure to be a fast-moving format--and as a live TV performer, Trump is far more nimble than the likes of Jeb Bush and Scott Walker. Still, a successfully detonated denunciation would blow up Twitter and generate coveted video clips.
CHALLENGE HIM. This "confront the bully" option calls for highlighting Trump's record and holding him accountable. Trump's political positions have been all over the map, with many of his past statements anathema to Republican voters. Yet so far he has been allowed to campaign in generalities, spouting slogans and insults while avoiding specifics. A rival who is able to engage Trump on substantive grounds gets a clean shot at the man's soft underbelly.
Pulling this off, of course, is tough in such a large field of candidates, and it runs the risk of focusing additional attention on Trump instead of one's own campaign. Direct confrontation could also backfire if Trump tops the attack with a devastating counterpunch of his own. But any such moment is guaranteed to generate extensive media play for the candidate who takes him on.
MOCK HIM. Donald Trump has shown himself to be extraordinarily thin-skinned when it comes to his own image. By making Trump the butt of jokes, the other debaters have a chance to puncture the man's ego-balloon. They should study President Obama's masterful takedown of Trump at the 2011 White House Correspondents' Dinner. Although it didn't happen in a debate, and Obama was a sitting president rather than a fellow office-seeker, the key lesson stands: Trump is unable to laugh at himself.
Using humor as an anti-Trump cudgel poses complications. Politicians are not comedians, and jokes that seem too scripted or forced can easily land with a thud. Furthermore, Trump's comebacks could very well overshadow the originals. But making him the evening's punch line offers at least the possibility of throwing him off his game.
Employing these tactics against a powder keg like Donald Trump may ultimately fail, for who can prepare for a lightning bolt? The only certainty heading into the debate is that every candidate on that stage must be prepared for quite literally anything. And so should the rest of us.