Five Things To Watch For While Watching Tomorrow’s GOP Debate

From Forbes.com

Five Things To Watch For While Watching The GOP Debate (Reagan Library Edition)

Bill Whalen

 

Opinions expressed by Forbes Contributors are their own.

January 2008: Republican presidential hopefuls debate at the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library in Simi Valley, California. (Photo by David McNew/Getty Images)

Yogi Berra supposedly said: “It’s tough to make predictions, especially about the future.”

Then again, it was Will Rogers who observed: “You’ve got to go out on a limb sometimes, because that’s where the fruit is.”

Last month, I listed five things to be on the lookout for during the Republicans’ first debate in Cleveland.

Here are five things I’ll be looking for on Wednesday night, when the GOP field gathers at the Reagan Presidential Library for the second nationally televised candidates’ debate (two debates, actually, at 6pm and 9pm EDT).

1. Donaldus Magnus? National polls indicate it’s Donald Trump’s race. Do his actions make it his debate? Obviously, much of the build-up swirls around the question of what Trump will have to say about his rivals, what his rivals have to say about him, who throws the first punch, and so forth. My question: does Trump do anything in the course of the debate that moves the ball forward – i.e., words or ideas other than “make America great” to suggest that he’s more than a protest vote against political correctness and timid Republican leadership. Or does Trump, a very skilled golfer (self-taught, he’ll tell you), play it down the middle of the fairway and keep the message tailored to the angeristas?

2. Carly Or Carson’s Turn? Ben Carson’s surged to second in most polls; Carly Fiorina’s worked her way up to the prime-time debate. Along with Trump, they’re the GOP’s trinity of candidates whose record isn’t blemished by holding office. Trump and Carson have experienced a minor flap. Trump and Fiorina have differences much more personal (his comments about her looks bringing new meaning to the term “face-off”). I can give you a scenario in which Carson’s serenity further elevates his cause. I can also paint a scenario in which Fiorina’s poise and quick thinking play well against Trump. The guess here: it’s a good night for Fiorina. At only 3% in the latest CNN poll, she has more room growth than Carson. Whereas Carson struggled at time in the Cleveland debate (except for a great closing statement), Fiorina shined under the lights. Wednesday night could be more of the same.

3. “I Paid For This Microphone.” Can we get through a Republican debate without righteous indignation – real or feigned? Let’s flash back to January 2012 and another CNN-sponsored debate – this one, in South Carolina. During that debate, New Gingrich was asked about an interview with his ex-wife, during which she’d claimed the ex-Speaker wanted an open marriage. Gingrich’s response to CNN’s John King (here’s the video) not only won over the audience, but also lit a new fire under his candidacy. John King isn’t doing the asking this time, under the CNN banner. Instead, the honor goes to talk radio’s Hugh Hewitt. You won’t be surprised to know that Trump has issues with Hewitt’s interview style. The question: given how Trump has benefitted from picking fights with Fox News and other media outlets, does he go after Hewitt during the course of the debate, or leave the criticism for the spin room?

4. The Opening Debate – Any Signs Of Life? With former Texas Gov. Rick Perry’s campaign now in hibernation, only four candidates will compete in the 6pm debate – former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum, Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal, South Carolina Sen. Lindsey Graham and former New York Gov. George Pataki (former Virginia Gov. Jim Gilmore wasn’t invited to the party as he couldn’t crack 1% in CNN’s poll averaging – here’s CNN’s debate criteria). Call this ensemble what you like – kiddie table, singles table, isle of lost souls. My question: what can any of these gents do to garner the same notice and media bounce as Fiorina, the star of Cleveland’s prelim debate? My guess: brace yourself for a steady stream of Washington-bashing, some if not much of it directed at the GOP establishment. Here’s where the Reagan Library’s primetime debate could differ greatly from Cleveland’s. From Kim Davis’ imprisonment and the GOP Senate’s cautious handling of the Iran deal, to upcoming frays over Planned Parenthood funding and extending the debt ceiling, there’s plenty of room for debate – a Mack truck’s width – and a serious divide between the pragmatic and bomb-throwing wings of the GOP field (translation: Ted Cruz vs. John Kasich).

5. There They Go Again. No less than five candidates mentioned Ronald Reagan during the course of the Cleveland debate. The 17 men and women who belong to the Party of Lincoln mentioned Honest Abe but once. It’s impossible to ignore Reagan – as Rush Limbaugh calls him, “Ronaldus Magnus” – in his library/resting place. To honor Reagan is to be expected. To be over-reliant on his legacy comes with risks, as I explain in this Real Clear Politics piece. Just go back to the 2012 Census and do the math: nearly 102 million Americans were age-50 or older three years ago. Politically, they came of age in the Age of Reagan.

However, another 103 million Americans in 2012 fell between the ages of 20-45. They’re too young to have voted for Reagan, who was last on the ballot in 1984. Does it makes sense for a 2016 candidate to highlight the greatest hits of the 1980s – firing air-traffic controllers, staring down the Soviets? Put another way: in an age of iPods and DVR, why talk Walkman and Betamax? No Republican has filled the void in the post-Reagan GOP, which is one reason why this race is so chaotic. My advice t Wednesday’s slate of 15 debaters: mimics of the 40th President usually end up as pale imitations of Ronald Reagan. Avoid that temptation – focus on who you are, and what you believe the GOP should be.

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