Political debates comes and go — they’re now a regular feature of most high-profile campaigns, from city council seats to the White House. There are different formats, different panels, different rules. Sometimes there are two candidates, other times there are ten. Sometimes they’re compelling; often, they’re boring.
For all their differences, though, the debate strategy challenge for participating candidates is remarkably consistent. Each candidate must first answer this question: Do I try to make news, or do I try to not make news?
The question is particularly important in tonight’s two Republican debates in Cleveland.
The first instinct for many of the candidates is to make news: to say something memorable, or funny, or outrageous enough to make the morning shows and newspaper headlines. That seems particularly important in a crowded field of 17 candidates. Campaigns may feel they need to do something to step away from the pack, and a well-time joke or jab at the debate is the way to do it.
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Yet making news is risky. It is nearly impossible for any candidate to win the nomination in tonight’s debate, but it’s quite possible to lose the race. Rick Perry still hasn’t recovered from his “three-things” gaffe in 2012. A flub, a mistaken fact, an overly-aggressive attack could echo for months — and doom a candidate’s chances.
So it might be better to lean back, stay out of the news.
Except for this: these debate watchers are not ordinary voters. They’re activists, eager for raw rhetoric, not nuanced issue discussion. A candidate that appears reluctant to engage might disappoint these viewers, sending their campaigns into a tailspin.
The usual response to the news/no news dilemma is the Goldilocks approach: not too hot, and not too cold. We’re likely to see some of that tonight, with candidates looking for a middle ground between aggression and acquiesence.
Which will make for a boring debate. And whatever else we might say about Donald Trump, Ben Carson, Sen. Ted Cruz and other GOP candidates, they abhor boring.
So here’s how each of the candidates in the ten-person main debate will likely answer the news/no news question:
1. Donald Trump. No news. The early front-runner doesn’t need to make headlines because he’ll be in them no matter what happens on the stage. And if he’s seen as too lethargic after the debate is over, he can always lob a rhetorical grenade the next day.
2. Jeb Bush. No news. The perceived front runner can’t gain much by attacking Trump, and can also live to fight another day. But he must be careful: base Republicans are are really looking for an alternative, so Bush can’t seem overwhelmed by the setting either.
3. Ted Cruz. News. The Texas senator must claim the Tea Party wing of the GOP or he has no chance. The Tea Party always wants to make the news.
4. Rand Paul. News. He would have been a no-news candidate two months ago, but Paul’s libertarian approach has stalled. He’ll need to remind Republicans that he’s different from all their other choices.
5. Mike Huckabee. News. See Ted Cruz, above.
6. Marco Rubio. No news. The sleeper senator from Florida is probably everyone’s second choice, and could move up if Bush falters. So he can let the others make the morning shows. Just don’t make a mistake.
7. Ben Carson. News. Everybody’s favorite non-politician stands apart from the field, and is a Tea Party favorite. He’s challenged by Cruz and Huckabee, so he needs to rumble with them.
8. John Kasich. No news. The Ohio governor is a new entrant into the race. He’ll sell himself as a voice of reason in a sea of unreason. Risky, then, to appear unreasonable.
9. Chris Christie. News. The New Jersey governor has to offer a rationale for his candidacy — why he’s a better alternative than Bush or Rubio (or Trump for that matter.) That effort has to start tonight, or Christie will continue to fade.
10. Scott Walker. No news. The Wisconsin governor is the stealth candidate, a favorite of anti-union Republicans with Tea Party crossover appeal. He can build on that support, but not at the debate. He risks the most by being too aggressive.
11. The undercard. News. All of the candidates who failed to make the Big Debate — Carly Fiorina, Rick Perry, Lindsay Graham, Jim Gilmore, Rick Santorum, Bob Jindal, and George Pataki — have little to lose by going long. Watch for these candidates to bash Trump, Fox News, Hillary Clinton, Barack Obama, and anything else they can get their hands on.