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Commentary: Will Tuesday's GOP Debate Be A Free-For-All?

If there's a clash Tuesday evening between candidates Donald Trump and Ted Cruz, pictured, that would probably be the big news story afterward, Todd Domke says. (Pablo Martinez Monsivais/AP)
If there's a clash Tuesday evening between candidates Donald Trump and Ted Cruz, pictured, that would probably be the big news story afterward, Todd Domke says. (Pablo Martinez Monsivais/AP)
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Tuesday’s debate could change the dynamic of the Republican presidential race.

With many candidates needing to “win” the debate -- or at least stand out in some way — it’s impossible to predict what will happen when their strategies collide. But here are some of the questions the debate should answer:

TRUMP: In light of Donald Trump’s recent call for banning all Muslims from entering the United States, he strikes many as a dangerous demagogue. While he’s tried to modify his position slightly, stressing that it was to be only temporary and have exceptions, he’s unlikely to tone it down much in the debate because of recent polls showing it’s popular with most Republicans. In this debate, will he try to keep the focus on this controversial issue and, if so, will he criticize opponents who derided his idea as unrealistic, unconstitutional and outrageous?

CRUZ: Texas Sen. Ted Cruz has taken a commanding lead in Iowa, according to recent polls. Trump has begun to belittle him, as he’s done with other opponents. Cruz has cagily avoided antagonizing The Donald, but The New York Times released an audiotape from a private fundraising event for Cruz being critical of Trump and Dr. Ben Carson -- wondering whether they had the judgment to be commander-in-chief. That will surely come up in the debate. Will Trump attack Cruz for maligning him behind his back? And will Cruz reinforce what he said when he questioned Trump’s judgment?

If there is a clash between them -- the two leading candidates in Iowa -- that would probably be the big news story afterward.

RUBIO: Florida Sen. Marco Rubio has been debating with Cruz in recent weeks about their respective positions on military policy. Will Rubio try to make a Trump-Cruz debate a three-way affair, making the case that neither of his opponents has the judgment to be president? Or will he avoid confrontation, hoping those two damage each other…thus letting him emerge as the positive alternative? Those three candidates appear to be the most likely to win the GOP nomination, so what they do in this debate could be pivotal. They don’t want to be upstaged, but they also don’t want to take unnecessary risks that alienate the supporters of another candidate because they hope to win those voters eventually.

CHRISTIE: New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie has been surging in New Hampshire, according to recent polls. But he faces a quandary. He’s competing with three other so-called establishment candidates -- Rubio, Ohio Gov. John Kasich and former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush. Will Christie try to out-debate the frontrunner, Trump, or will he try to upend the three opponents who are in his establishment lane?

CARSON: The brain surgeon seems to be clueless about his fall from grace with Iowa voters. He collapsed in the polls after an abysmal performance in the last debate, and after saying things about foreign policy that indicated a startling lack of knowledge. Yet in recent interviews he doesn’t seem to be saying anything new to improve his reputation. Will he try to come across as more informed about foreign policy after his trip to Jordan? Or will he try to win back supporters by sounding more populist -- like his recent remarks about the possibility of a deadlocked convention, saying that he didn’t want to be “part of corruption”?

KASICH: If there is a deadlocked convention, the governor of Ohio might be a power broker. That’s because the Ohio primary is winner-take-all, and if Kasich wins there he’d have a big bloc of delegates.

Meanwhile, Kasich doesn’t seem like he’s giving up. From his early congressional races, he knows what it’s like to be an underdog and go on to win. So maybe we’ll see a fiery Kasich in this debate, making the case that Trumpism is damaging the GOP.

BUSH: Bush's campaign stopped using the exclamation mark after his name for an obvious reason -- it was absurd because of his continued decline in popularity. He and his super PAC have spent a fortune on TV ads, yet he has fallen to single digits in polls. In recent weeks reporters have noted that he has done much better with audiences since getting help from a speech/debate coach. But what can he do in this debate to come across as the “new, improved” Jeb, without viewers thinking he is trying to present a new image, i.e. that he’s inauthentic?

MODERATORS: Will they ask questions that the candidates use as an excuse to bash the “liberal media”? CNN is considered to have a liberal bias by Republican activists, but the panelists include Hugh Hewitt, a conservative radio talk show host. In recent weeks, the candidates have been bashing each other more than they have the “mainstream media.” That will probably continue in this debate, and maybe that’s the only thing that is predictable.

Todd Domke is a Republican political analyst and a regular contributor to WBUR Politicker.

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Todd Domke Twitter Republican Political Analyst
Todd Domke is a Republican political analyst for WBUR.

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