It seems that the list of Republicans not running for president is shorter than the list of actual candidates. Maybe the eventual winner will be the one who can get their family to turn out and vote. Faced with a veritable battalion of would-be presidents, the organizers of the first GOP debate have decided to split the field into a top tier and a lower tier based on current polling.
Even though everyone wants to play on the varsity stage, the real show to watch will be the junior varsity debate. Someone from the JV squad is going to stand out and graduate to the top tier. Meanwhile, the varsity players will be lucky to get a word in, Trump-wise.
The bottom line for these debates is that they are too big. Ten people on stage, the same questions, the same canned answers, a series of weak one-liners (but they were so funny in rehearsal!). These early debates are no different from ones from 30 years ago – only the faces have changed. The early debates are about the frontrunner(s) not making mistakes and attempts by the rest to get noticed. Unfortunately, most of the laggards only get noticed in a bad way.
In a 10-way debate not everyone can get noticed. Barring major gaffes, Bush, Walker, Rubio and Cruz are not going anywhere. The rest of the varsity players can’t say that – any one of them (or more) can get lost in the mix. And the worst thing in politics is to not be noticed.
Then there’s Trump.
Wherever Trump goes, he sucks the oxygen out of the room. The spectacle of Trump is going to drown out practically everyone in the varsity debate. Trump says what he thinks and never apologizes, even when he speaks nonsense. The latest dustup – his absurd criticism of John McCain – is proof positive that he can’t last. Trump created a totally unnecessary and highly damaging controversy. Instead of admitting he screwed up, he doubled down and made it worse.
Trump is a meteor streaking across the Republican primary sky. He is in the process of imploding. But that process will still be happening as the first Republican debate gets underway. And the meteor is going to outshine most of the stage.
Bush, Walker, Rubio and Cruz have enough money, organization and general support to survive the meteor that is Donald Trump, but the others do not. At least one, probably more will get burned up.
By contrast, the JV debate will allow someone from this smaller group to emerge and make the varsity. The JV debate may well get lower ratings, but it will still get coverage and GOP activists will be paying attention. Interesting candidates like Jindal, Santorum and Fiorina (if they don’t make the varsity) will get a chance to impress. They won’t have to attack Jeb Bush. They won’t be desperately trying to outshout Trump. The JV players can talk about themselves.
It’s no fun being told you aren’t in the top tier. But someone from the JV debate will be able to move up – while the varsity team will get thinned out. The last few candidates who make the varsity cut will end up regretting it.