Presidential Election

6 ways to score the big GOP debate

Workers clean the sidewalk in front of the Quicken Loans Arena in Cleveland on Wednesday.
Workers clean the sidewalk in front of the Quicken Loans Arena in Cleveland on Wednesday. AP

The lineup for Thursday’s Republican debate will look like this: One big star, Donald Trump, at center stage. One famous political name, Jeb Bush. And eight others trying to convince voters who barely know them they’re up to the job.

The two-hour debate at Quicken Loans Arena starts at 9 p.m. EDT. It will be broadcast by Fox News, which is co-sponsoring it with Facebook.

Here are some ways to keep score:

▪ How far can candidates go challenging Donald Trump?

Will rivals demand he explain his branding undocumented Mexican immigrants as criminals and rapists? Trump has insulted most of these candidates, and this is their chance to return fire. And what will it cost them? Think about whether they look better to you if they go after him, or he does? Do they look principled? Mature? Or do they look like the status quo?

▪ Will Trump evolve from showman to potential president?

While he’s comfortably ahead in most polls, Trump’s negatives are also huge. Skeptics see him as a shallow-minded distraction. This week, Trump posted a Facebook video saying he wanted rivals to answer one question: “How will you make America great again?” Trump needs to answer that himself, and how he can go beyond the quips and sound bites to get things done. Ask whether you need to hear more about how he’d do it.

▪ Is it time for a new generation?

Scott Walker, 47, the governor of Wisconsin, and Marco Rubio, 44, a senator from Florida, are the year’s biggest curiosities. Each boasts a strong political resume and plenty of campaign cash. The public, though, barely knows them. Walker wowed Iowa Republicans earlier this year demanding Washington adopt the same spending restraints as his state. Rubio, a Cuban-American from the nation’s premier swing state, has been on the short list of future presidents since he won a Senate seat in 2010. Watch them and ask yourself: Would I feel better handing the reins to a new generation, or more scared?

▪ Who speaks to and for Christian conservatives?

A sizable bloc of Republicans is eager to rally around a firebrand who’s fiercely anti-abortion, won’t relent in trying to repeal Obamacare, thinks Common Core is federal control of schools and is appalled by same-sex marriage. Rick Santorum won these voters in 2012. This time, he’s one of many – Ben Carson, Mike Huckabee, Ted Cruz and Walker – seeking their approval. Which one sounds like your champion?

Who is the next big thing?

Trump could fade. Bush already could be maxed out. Underdogs often intrigue voters, and it doesn’t take much to make an unknown an overnight trending topic. Maybe this year’s surprise will be the candidate with a reasonable attitude, or an easy to understand idea that sounds interesting (think Herman Cain’s 2011 9-9-9 tax plan). Remember, a lot of seasoned politicians at the bottom of polls have histories of winning and have been successful in diverse states. Watch Chris Christie and John Kasich.

▪ Who seems most like a president?

That’s a hard one. In recent elections, the most successful candidates projected an aura. That didn’t necessarily mean voters liked them. Mitt Romney and John Kerry were recent nominees but not overwhelmingly personally popular. Debates allow viewers to discern who seems presidential, who could command the military, negotiate with Congress and rally the nation.

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