The inaugural 2016 debate for the White House on Thursday will be the first time many voters will be tuning into the volatile GOP campaign, and candidates are praying they'll get a boost and not a bust from the face-off.
"The level of engagement has been very low," said Rick Wilson, a Florida-based national GOP strategist. "This will be a week where we will probably have record viewership on FOX News for a primary debate, and it's going to get a lot of attention and a lot of focus."
That new level of engagement is why the presidential hopefuls have been making mad dashes to try to elevate their poll numbers to qualify for the debate. Those who don't make the top 10 will be relegated to an earlier debate that afternoon — which will get much less attention, a smaller audience and will reinforce the idea that they're not really in the mix to make a serious play for the nomination.
The Trump Factor
One person guaranteed to make the stage Thursday in Cleveland is billionaire businessman Donald Trump — much to the chagrin of many in the GOP establishment.
Those who likely will be joining Trump on the stage are former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush, Florida Sen. Marco Rubio, Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker, Texas Sen. Ted Cruz, Kentucky Sen. Rand Paul, former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee and neurosurgeon Ben Carson. (New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, Ohio Gov. John Kasich and former Texas Gov. Rick Perry are all on the bubble and eagerly awaiting the last round of national polling before Tuesday's cutoff.)
But it's Trump who is likely to face the most scrutiny on stage. After announcing nearly two months ago, his poll numbers have only soared, and he's atop every recent national poll.
His presence has already defined the field for the past few weeks. Ever since his June announcement, he's owned nearly every media cycle because of his comments about Mexican immigrants and 2008 GOP presidential nominee John McCain's military service, and other controversial statements.
None of those have caused his poll numbers to suffer. But the environment on Thursday will be an entirely different one for the real-estate mogul and reality TV star, and it's one his more seasoned political rivals are hoping to capitalize on.
Expect Trump's past positions to be a point of attack for his opponents, such as his past support for health care reform and abortion rights. He also has a record of donating to Democrats — including Hillary Clinton. His rivals are also carefully weighing, however, how to go after Trump, if they should at all.
Trump, for his part, has been trying to downplay expectations. "Maybe my whole life is a debate in a way, but the fact is I'm not a debater, and they are," he said Sunday on ABC's This Week.
And the usually combative Trump said he wouldn't be looking for a fight on Thursday night.
"I don't think I'm going to be throwing punches," he added. "I'm not looking to attack. Every attack I've made was a counterpunch. They attacked me first, and I hit them back — maybe harder than they hit me, but the fact is that I've been attacked pretty viciously by some of these guys."
Battle To Get Off The Bubble
Those attacks are what some of his rivals are hoping to lodge — if they can make the stage. Some of Trump's biggest antagonists — Christie, Perry and South Carolina Sen. Lindsey Graham — may not even make it onto the main debate stage.
Those on the bubble have been working overtime to try to boost their poll numbers. This early in the campaign, candidates are focusing on early states like Iowa and New Hampshire. They're not campaigning nationally yet. So a candidate may be doing better in one of the first primary states but hasn't caught on in national polls — the indicator being used to allow candidates on the stage. Candidates who are on the bubble say that skews the odds toward Republicans with more money and name recognition.
That has forced some to take a different tack, one usually reserved for later in the race. Christie's campaign and his superPAC have been running national TV ads, and so have superPACs backing Perry. Candidates whose pockets aren't as deep — like former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum and Graham — have been relying on earned media, attempts at viral videos and cable-news blitzes instead.
For some, it has worked. Kasich turned his late kickoff last month into needed momentum, not just in New Hampshire but enough nationally to probably make it on stage. Christie, too, looks like he'll get a spot. But Perry, as of Sunday night, wouldn't make the cut.
There are some who won't make it on stage who many in the GOP would like to see up there. Perry, for his part, has improved on the stump from his famous "oops" moment in a 2012 debate that was fatal to his already struggling candidacy. Now, he has emerged as one of the loudest Trump critics.
Many would like to see former Hewlett-Packard CEO Carly Fiorina on stage, given that she's the only woman in the race on the GOP side. She's also become a fierce attack dog against Clinton.
The Busy Week For The GOP Continues
New Hampshire actually tried to jump ahead of the Fox debate in a way. There's a forum Monday night with nearly all the candidates being hosted in the state. Trump and Huckabee won't be there. It will air live on C-SPAN. The candidates won't be on stage together; they'll each briefly answer questions from a moderator in two rounds.
Right after Thursday's debate, most candidates will head to Atlanta for a Red State gathering Friday — an important coalition of conservative voters they would like to win over to gain some traction in the race. Expect some of what happened the night before to spill over into this cattle call as well.
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