Election 2016: Reviewing the Line-up for the First GOP Debate

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Fox News waited till the last moment to announce the final lineup for first Republican presidential debate of the season. The debate, scheduled for this Thursday, is to include the top ten candidates (as determined by a somewhat esoteric method of aggregating various polls). The final roster, complete with podium spots allocated according to popularity, was announced Tuesday.

We can divide the list of candidates into three groups: there are the purveyors of outrage and discontent (Donald Trump, Ted Cruz, and Rand Paul), the moderates (Jeb Bush, Marco Rubio, Chris Christie, and John Kasich), and the conservatives (Scott Walker, Mike Huckabee, and Ben Carson)

The top three candidates in the polls each represent a different faction. Let’s take a look at them and what they’re going to say:


1.     Donald Trump – 23.4%

In first position, and representing the forces of anger and outrage, is The Donald. He’s stormed to the front of the GOP pack on the back of growing discontent with politics as usual. While ahead in the polls, Trump continues to have the highest “unfavorables” of any candidate. If he hopes to stay in the race, let alone retain his lead, Trump will have to use the debate to start looking more like a statesman and less like a circus performer.

What to look out for: Unplanned crazy. Trump is well known as a public speaking wild card. If he has opted to go into the debate unprepared we may be in for a dazzling self-destruction on stage.


2.     Jeb Bush – 12.0%

The son and brother of presidents, Jeb Bush cuts a very different figure from the bombastic billionaire he’ll be shoulder-to-shoulder with on Thursday night. Jeb carries with him both a pedigree the Republican establishment can get behind, and the baggage of a name that, to many Americans, is still synonymous with deceit, incompetence, and endless war. To win the debate, Jeb will have to double down on his strengths, namely moderation, experience, and friendliness, to groups usually outside the Republican mainstream.

What to look out for: Standing above the fray. Bush will win if he can make his points credibly and not get sucked into a right wing quagmire. When the inevitable attacks on Trump begin, expect Jeb to choose magnanimity over direct confrontation.


3.     Scott Walker – 10.2%

If Jeb represents the establishment center, then Scott Walker is the standard bearer of the classical right wing of the Republican Party. A plain-talking Midwesterner who has gotten tough on unions, women’s issues, and more, Walker represents the conservative faction among traditional Republicans. He is not a radical; he’s just trying to stake out the conservative ground in contra to Jeb’s more moderate tone.

What to look out for: Trying to out-conservative the minor dark horses. While he leads the conservative wing at the moment, Walker is vulnerable to the more fire-breathing types in the debate. Watch him try to limit their potential to siphon support while not going off the deep end. It’s a fine line to walk; we’ll see if he has the dexterity!


The other candidates are all well behind the three main factional standard bearers in the polls, but that won’t stop them from making a mark. In the “anger” camp, Ted Cruz (5.4%) will roll out his well-worn and well-polished assault on Washington insiders that could, if delivered convincingly, whittle off a piece of Trump’s support. Likewise Rand Paul (4.8%), whose “libertarian lite” campaign one of the most unique pitches of any candidate in the race, will try to bring his message across. Yet despite his originality, Paul will have difficulty separating his brand of “shrink the government” anger from the millennialist ranting of Cruz and the more general raving of Trump.

In the moderate pack, Marco Rubio (5.4%) is the one most worth watching. A Cuban-American who has made strides toward bipartisan immigration reform, Rubio may stand the best chance of making inroads with minority groups skeptical of the Republican brand. If he can get the air-time necessary to distinguish himself, Rubio might propel himself back into the top tier of candidates. His fellow moderates, Chis Christie (3.4%) and John Kasich (3.2%), have to do even more if they want to distinguish themselves and stand a fighting chance in the primaries. Both are governors with a penchant for compromise and pragmatism. Of the two, Kasich is the one to watch; while Christie has long courted the media (which has proven a double-edged sword for his popularity), Kasich has largely flown under the radar. Perhaps he can make a splash!

Mike Huckabee (6.6%) is still fighting to win back his old place as the voice of conservative Republicans and Christian right that he traded for a job with Fox News after 2008. Ben Carson (5.8%), a neurosurgeon with no political experience, is a relative newcomer to the political scene. A darling of the Tea Party, Carson has built a following by both ferociously attacking President Obama, and offering traditional conservative policies dressed up as pleasant sounding bromides. While both Huckabee and Carson are able public speakers who could have an impressive showing in the debate, it still remains to be seen how serious they are about contesting the race. As regulars of the conservative media circuit, there remains a lingering suspicion that their candidacies are more about book and television deals than winning elections.

The debate is certainly going to be interesting. With ten candidates sharing a stage there can be little doubt that it will get intense. All the candidates are no doubt prepping furiously to make best use of their precious few minutes at the microphone. For whom it will pay off Thursday night is anyone’s guess.

About John Engle

John Engle is a merchant banker and author living in the Chicago area. His work has been featured by the Heartland Institute and the American Thinker. His first book, Trinity Student Pranks: A History of Mischief and Mayhem, was published in September 2013. John is a graduate of Trinity College Dublin, Ireland and the University of Oxford.Read more from this author.