SIMI VALLEY, Calif. — Donald Trump will be the center of Wednesday night’s CNN GOP debate, both literally and figuratively.
As the leading candidate in the polls, Trump will occupy the center podium in front of Ronald Reagan’s Air Force One, as 11 of 16 presidential GOP presidential contenders face-off at the Reagan Library at 8:00 p.m. ET on CNN.
And as he has been since the moment he declared in June that he was actually entering the presidential fray, Trump is the center of media attention going into the debate and will likely be so coming out of it.
As Trump himself once boasted to Playbook magazine, “The show is Trump. And it’s sold out performances everywhere.”
What was true then, is truer than ever now, for better or worse.
What follows are several subplots of tonight’s debate — many involving Trump, though not all — you should watch for.
1.) Will Jeb Bush Go After The Donald?
Something happened on Jeb Bush’s way to the nomination.
Once seen as the frontrunner for the Republican nomination — leading in the polls and with a super PAC that shocked and awed by raising over $100 million dollars — Bush is now being eclipsed by planet Donald Trump.
After initially trying to ignore Trump’s rise, Bush has been trying to take it to the “Make America Great Again” billionaire baseball cap mogul on the campaign trail, regularly accusing him of being a fake conservative.
But so far, the attack hasn’t seemed to have stopped Trump’s momentum. And as a master mudslinger — or, as he would say, “counter-puncher” — Trump revels in slamming Bush on the campaign trail as being “low-energy” and controlled by his big donors.
So will Jeb take the fight to Trump on the debate stage? You have to imagine he will. The real question is, when the smoke settles, will Jeb still be standing if he does?
2.) Rand Paul and Chris Christie fighting for relevancy
Last month, at the first GOP debate in Cleveland, Rand Paul and Chris Christie fought each other. Tonight, they both fight for survival.
Both candidates were supposed to be among the top contenders for the GOP nomination, but now both are on the edge of being excluded from future debates if their poll numbers don’t improve and if future debate rules further restrict the number of candidates allowed on stage.
Of the 11 people participating in the main debate tonight, Christie’s poll numbers are the worst, with only 1.5 percent of Republican voters supporting him nationally, according to the latest RealClearPolitics polling average.
Paul’s numbers are slightly better at 3.3 percent nationally, according to the RealClearPolitics average, but we don’t yet know what the rules for participation will be at the CNBC debate next month in Colorado. If CNBC only allows eight candidates on the main stage, for instance, the man Chris Matthews once predicted would win the Republican nomination could be in danger of watching the debate from the comfort of his sofa.
For Christie and Paul, the pressure is on tonight to make a positive impression and reinvigorate their respective campaigns.
3.) Will Walker Continue To Wither?
Unlike Paul and Christie, it was only a couple of months ago Walker was considered among the frontrunners for the Republican nomination. Like Paul and Christie, he could be on the bubble for the next debate.
Walker’s fortunes have fallen fast, in part consumed by the Trumpnado and in part due to his own errors. The Wisconsin governor burnished a reputation as a fearless political warrior, unafraid of taking tough stands he thought were in the best interests of his constituents, like he did when he stood up the public sector unions in his home state.
But in recent weeks and months, Walker’s reputation for political courage has been bruised with the governor seemingly flipping and flopping on various issues, depending on the political winds.
Most political prognosticators once considered Walker one of the most likely to win the GOP nomination. Now people wonder whether he has the personality necessary to stand out among his fellow contenders. He’ll need to show he can command the stage tonight — or he may find himself in further political trouble.
4.) The Hewitt Factor
America’s best political interviewer, Hugh Hewitt, will be joining CNN’s Jake Tapper and Dana Bash to ask the candidates questions on Wednesday night — and he will surely help shape the tenor of the debate.
Hewitt is a serious man who understands that the next president will have to make consequential decisions that will shape America’s future, particularly surrounding military preparedness and national security. You can expect Hewitt to ask tough questions about how the contenders will operate if they become Commander-in-Chief. Will the candidates be ready to answer — or will some stumble, as they have in the past when they faced Hewitt’s queries on his radio show?
5.) A Funny Line And You’ll Do Fine
Since the last debate, Ben Carson has been on a political rocket ship to the top of the GOP polls, finding himself in second place nationally, trailing only The Donald. There are, of course, many factors that likely contributed to Carson’s rise, but a few humorous lines at the last debate didn’t seem to hurt.
On second thought, maybe all it takes to win the GOP nomination is a funny line or two on the debate stage with 20 million people tuning in? Who, among the 11 contenders, will get the laugh line of the night — and will that give them a boost in the polls?
6.) The Fiorina Factor
Carly Fiorina may be best positioned to wound Donald Trump Wednesday night.
The former Hewlett-Packard CEO oozes natural political talent and has the gusto necessary to engage in political fisticuffs with Trump. If The Donald underestimates her, the Mike Tyson of political pugilism might find his Buster Douglas is on the stage — and wearing heals.
The two have been going at it over the last week since it was reported that Trump seemingly criticized Fiorina’s face.
“Look at that face! Would anyone vote for that? Can you imagine that, the face of our next president?!” Trump told a Rolling Stone reporter while Fiorina appeared on television.
Trump later claimed he was referring to her personality, but Fiorina went on offense after the comment was published, releasing an ad in which she declared she is “proud of every year and every wrinkle” on her face.
Fiorina has made clear that she plans to engage Trump at the debate.
“Mr. Trump’s going to be hearing quite a lot from me,” she said.
If she battles Trump ably, with perhaps tens of millions of people tuning in, she could soon find herself among the very top-tier of GOP contenders.