What to Watch for in the First GOP "Debate"

First of all, let's stop calling the series of candidate nights over the next few months, featuring guaranteed friendly "moderators," a "debate." No college debater would recognize the format as a debate. Over a period of two hours of airtime, each of the "Top Ten Reasons for Voting Republican (or Not)" featured on Fox will get 60 seconds to answer any question and 30 seconds of rebuttal time.

This will work out to a total of about 10 minutes for each candidate over the life of the show. Sounds more like an extended high school musical audition than any sort of serious effort to identify the policy proposals and positions, and test the temperament, of the persons now seeking the presidency on the GOP side.

The situation is even worse for the other announced Republican candidates in the 5 p.m. Eastern slot, the "Development League" conversation--seven of them will share less than an hour of airtime. At least the network has the decency not to call this session a debate. Yet it also may be the most intriguing broadcast to watch in terms of effects on the campaign and choice of eventual nominee.

It appears that those relegated to the second division will include Carly Fiorina (the only female candidate); Rick Santorum (who finished second to Mitt Romney in the 2012 contest); Rick Perry (the multi-term former governor of the big electoral-vote state of Texas); Bobby Jindal (the sitting two-term governor of Louisiana); Jim Gilmore (former governor of the important swing state of Virginia); George Pataki (former two-term governor of the huge electoral-vote state of New York); and Lindsey Graham (two terms as U.S. Senator from the key southern primary state of South Carolina).

If one or two of these seven happen to put in a compelling performance in their truncated session, they will immediately be the focus of attention in terms of taking slots in the "Top Ten" for the next big-league session, in place of the one or two candidates in the current Top Ten who by consensus fail to perform well in the prime-time showdown. Twitter (its stock is way down but its relevance is way up), along with post-"debate" polling, will probably tell the tale.

Moreover, those among the current seven "also-rans" who do not stand out will come under increased pressure to stand aside from the GOP donor-base community. It's early in the race by historical standards, but nothing in the Citizens United decision compels plutocrats to waste their money on candidates who prove unready for the majors--especially when the "moderators" have been chosen precisely because they have batting practice arms! You won't be taken seriously for hardball if you can't hit a softball. Those who fail the first test have just wasted "seed money"--they will be hard-pressed to get any more serious political venture capital rounds. A guess for the best chance to make the top two of the bottom seven: Fiorina, Santorum, and a toss-up between Jindal and Graham. At least one in this group has a great chance to move up in the polls as the result of being the "best of the rest."

As to the Top Ten: it is more likely that somebody will move down than any one candidate will emerge as the clear-cut winner. Nature abhors a glut as well as a vacuum, and right now there is a glut of candidates (at least on one side); even the GOP-friendly Fox network knows that these sorts of cattle calls will lose the audience over time (however, the first should be a doozy even though it is not a debate--maybe even because it isn't). There will be intense focus, when it's all said and done, not only on the ubiquitous Mr. Trump, but also on which one or two of the candidates failed to "break through" or missed an opportunity because of some sort of "oops" moment (it will probably have to be somebody other than Rick Perry this time).

The other potential loser in this format could well be Fox News, surprisingly. Everybody knows, of course, that the network is essentially a PR branch of the GOP, but there is a limit to how far they can bend to suit the candidates. The three moderators chosen in concert with the Republican Party leadership all have solid journalistic credentials despite their network's obvious political bias: Megyn Kelly, Bret Baier and Chris Wallace are the "A-Team" of the network in terms of hard news credibility, but they will have to bring their "A-Game" to this event, nonetheless. For example, will they raise any question about immigration policy that actually offers the public a chance to see the real differences between the candidates on this issue, or will they simply serve up softballs like "What Obama has done wrong on immigration?"

The policy differences are significant: Trump is on record favoring mass deportations; Ben Carson says that's impractical and unaffordable; Bush favors some form of regularization without citizenship; as of Sunday, Chris Christie was still thinking about it; and Scott Walker is adjusting his position somewhere on the continuum while denying he is doing any such thing--he was against a path to citizenship before he was for it--in private only.

The same holds for the issue of ISIS (troops on the ground or not) and abortion (Huckabee would not rule out defying the Supreme Court, issuing an executive order closing all abortion clinics pursuant to applying the Fifth and Fourteenth Amendment's Equal Protection Clause to unborn fetuses and using U.S. marshals or troops to enforce such closure, as in school desegregation days in Little Rock). Will the moderators ask if the other candidates agree or disagree? They should, but they were selected precisely because they were not supposed to ask potentially embarrassing or divisive questions (i.e., anything a Democrat might ask). Will they sacrifice their reputations to spare the GOP another Todd Akin moment, or will they be true journalists?

Finally, one might also ask, where are the other obvious potential Democratic candidates (besides Joe Biden, who would make five)? Are there another five? How about Jerry Brown (five years older than Joe Biden, but in yet another term as California governor, with an earned reputation for leading the state out of near bankruptcy, and a forceful leader and accomplisher on Democratic causes like climate change--plus Trump wouldn't scare him); Andrew Cuomo (two-term New York governor, leader on the environment and gay marriage, and also someone who could handle Trump); Mark Warner (two-term moderate Virginia senator and former governor of this key swing state); Kirsten Gillibrand and Amy Klobuchar (senators from New York and Minnesota, respectively, each with more experience in that office than Senators Cruz, Rubio and Paul on the GOP side).

All five of them would be obvious candidates were it not for the supposition that the Clintons are unbeatable in the party. But we have seen that movie before--and it didn't turn out that way. If Bernie moves up more, or Joe jumps in, will it tempt these others to make it a Democrat Top Ten, too? Can't wait to see!