Presidential Election

GOP debate showdown: Who breaks out, who breaks down?

A worker cleans the sidewalk in front of the Quicken Loans Arena in Cleveland, Wednesday in preparation for Thursday's first Republican presidential debate.
A worker cleans the sidewalk in front of the Quicken Loans Arena in Cleveland, Wednesday in preparation for Thursday's first Republican presidential debate. AP

Donald Trump needs to act presidential. Jeb Bush has to erase the notion that he’s just another Bush. And a host of Republicans have to make enough of a first impression on the American public that they can vault into the top tier of a crowded presidential field.

Ten Republicans will vie Thursday from 9 to 11 p.m. EDT in the first Republican presidential debate of the 2016 campaign. The other seven candidates can participate in a one-hour forum starting at 5 p.m.

The debate at Cleveland’s Quicken Loans Arena is likely to shake up and redefine the huge field, the biggest in modern times. Here’s what the contenders need to do to stay in, or reach, the front of the pack:

Tier One: The front-runners

▪ Donald Trump: Can he look and act presidential? He needs to show (a) he’s thought out some policy positions and (b) he has a commander in chief’s temperament. What’s his remedy for overhauling the nation’s health care system? Will there be some detail, or another burst of vivid sound bites?

▪ Jeb Bush: Can he be pithy? And can he separate himself from his brother? The former governor of Florida tends to ramble and get too nuanced. Not a bad quality, but not a recipe for standing out in rapid-fire debates. He’s likely to get challenged on his support for a path to legal status for many undocumented immigrants and his support for Common Core educational standards.

▪ Scott Walker: Will he get beyond the talking points? The governor of Wisconsin wows Republicans when he boasts about how he took on unions in a budget fight. But it’s not all that it seems, and he’s likely to be confronted about shortfalls that required tough spending cuts. He usually answers with well-rehearsed talking points, but he must go further and impress viewers that he knows what he’s talking about.

▪ Marco Rubio: Can he demonstrate gravitas and commitment? He has to defend his 2013 support for a comprehensive immigration overhaul that included a path to citizenship for undocumented immigrants, and then his move away from that approach. He wants to come across as a national security expert and needs to talk comfortably and authoritatively about terrorist threats.

Tier Two: So much potential, so little traction

▪ Ted Cruz: Will he try to out-Trump Trump? Cruz can’t resist the quick hit, and it’s landed him in political jeopardy as Trump has won the outraged voters so far. The senator from Texas went for broke recently, calling the Senate Republican leader a liar. Will Cruz on Thursday separate himself further from the establishment?

▪ Rand Paul: What happened to him? He sank to eighth in the Fox News poll averages that determined debate status. The senator from Kentucky seems unable to get traction, even after this week’s leadership role in trying to divert federal funds from Planned Parenthood. He must find a way to stand out in the pack.

Tier Three: The wild cards

▪ John Kasich: Will conservatives accept him? He'll be introducing himself to much of the public, and his regular-guy demeanor and ease discussing issues should help. But will the governor of Ohio appear presidential? And might he seem too centrist and accommodating to satisfy the conservative base?

▪ Mike Huckabee: Can he demonstrate mainstream appeal? He’s likely to keep pounding away with provocative statements, largely aimed at his Christian right constituency. The former Arkansas governor must show a greater grasp of mainstream issues, notably the economy, health care and foreign policy, to break out of this tier, but so far hasn’t shown much desire to do so.

▪ Ben Carson: Is he too understated to make a splash? He'll be steady, thoughtful, conservative, and maybe too calm and quiet to stand out. The retired neurosurgeon has stayed away from the sort of incendiary comments that marked his early political efforts. But what does he know about how to fight terrorism or manage an economy?

▪ Chris Christie: Can he calm down? His no-prisoners style is perfect for a debate. But the governor of New Jersey has to erase the impression that he’s too quick to anger when challenged. So far, he hasn’t demonstrated that ability.

Tier Four: The 5-7 p.m. bigger name division

These candidates didn’t have the support in national polls to qualify for the debate under rules set by Fox News. They’re invited to the 5 p.m. forum, which will allow them to appear sequentially, but not at the same time.

▪ Rick Perry: Is he 2012’s news? The former governor of Texas had a huge opportunity last time and blew it. He’s got to get through all the new faces and the old concerns, and winding up in the “other” forum could be further evidence his time is up.

▪ Carly Fiorina: How does she break out of the pack? Expect the former business executive to keep stressing her business resume and criticizing Hillary Clinton, which she does like no one else in the field. That hasn’t done much for her campaign so far, though.

▪ Lindsey Graham: Is he too accommodating to Democrats? He has to show conservatives he’s really one of them. They’re unhappy with his willingness to work with Democrats. The senator from South Carolina also needs to explain why he thinks he has a shot.

▪ Bobby Jindal: Can the policy-wonk Jindal reappear? He’s fashioned himself as the candidate of the Christian right. Can he return to being the two-term governor of Louisiana known for his budget management and health care expertise? So far he hasn’t shown any signs of doing so.

▪ Rick Santorum: Whatever happened to the winner of the 2012 Iowa caucus? The former senator from Pennsylvania has a rough task, convincing his religious right constituency he deserves another chance. So far, they’re more inclined to consider Cruz, Huckabee and Carson.

Tier Five: The 5-7 p.m. barely known division

▪ George Pataki: Are centrists watching? The three-term governor of New York is hoping to break through in New Hampshire. He can only hope that the independents and moderates are paying attention.

▪ Jim Gilmore: Jim Gilmore? The former governor of Virginia will talk national security. But viewers may wonder why someone who hasn’t won a race since 1997, and was crushed in his 2008 Senate bid, should be considered.

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