Tonight in Cleveland, the Republican primary debate might look and feel something like the worst beauty pageant ever thanks to Fox News whittling down the list of Republican candidates allowed to appear onstage to “10 lucky finalists” and the evening’s undisputed star — purveyor of all things glitzy and reality TV boss, Donald Trump.
The debate airs on Fox News at 9:00 p.m. Eastern, so make sure you’ve got that popcorn popped and wine poured so you can strap in for some serious fireworks. The 10 dudes onstage will all be fighting to emerge from the gilded, herculean shadow of The Donald, who is the Republican Party’s undisputed darling of the moment. Trump tops every poll, besting the Jeb and the Bush political dynasty and even labor-union-busting-darling Scott Walker by double digits.
Trump, based on his lead, will stand center stage along with Jeb Bush, Scott Walker, Mike Huckabee, Ben Carson, Ted Cruz, Marco Rubio, Rand Paul, Chris Christie and John Kasich.
To help you get maximum enjoyment out of tonight’s debate, here’s a quick roundup of what you can expect and what to watch out for.
1. Donald Trump
Contrary to every talking head’s prediction of Donald Trump’s demise, he’s still sitting at the top of the heap of the 17 candidates who are running for the Republicans’ 2016 nomination. Why? Senator Rand Paul was on CNN last week and chastised Wolf Blitzer for allowing Donald Trump to dominate news cycle after news cycle, which Paul argues gives him a clear advantage. But what does Trump know about the media the other candidates don’t? That you have to give them a story. Watch Trump tonight; it doesn’t matter how controversial the question is, he’ll answer it. You might not agree with his position, but people are heartened to hear someone taking a stand.
Take Trump’s comments on religion. Despite many Republican politicians being carried to victory by the evangelical Christian vote, Trump hasn’t pandered to them or posed as some religious person. He told Iowa voters gathered that he doesn’t feel the need to seek God’s forgiveness. He made fun of Communion. He’s authentic, and it’s appealing to all sorts of voters tired of being fed the same lines by disingenuous pols.
But the big question for tonight is this: Can Trump keep up his frank talk and still hold his ground among the group of far more seasoned politicians that will join him onstage tonight? Look for his rivals to attack his moral character, his past contributions and dealings with Democrats like the Clintons and his thin political résumé.
2. Megyn Kelly
Tonight’s debate will be moderated by Fox News anchor Megyn Kelly, who has emerged as the network’s most popular personality. Kelly will be joined by her Fox News colleagues Bret Baier and Chris Wallace, but she’s the one to watch. Kelly is comfortable handling bloviators on the reg, so it’s going to be fun watching her tame that stage of tough-talking dudes battling for attention. Kelly is also no stranger to making her own inflammatory comments, whether it’s getting pissed because Santa Claus is obviously white or standing up for the rights of working moms to get paid maternity leave.
Kelly is a force, and she’s sure to make an impact on tonight’s debates.
Late last month, Secretary of State John Kerry went to the Hill to announce a deal among the U.S. and five other world powers that he and the Obama administration say would keep Iran from building a nuclear weapon. Broadly, the U.S. and other nations have pledged to roll back economic sanctions in return for more transparency and a winding down of the nuclear program. Here’s the White House’s argument for the Iran deal. But for the U.S. to participate, the deal has to be approved by Congress this month, something Republicans, including legislative stalwarts John McCain and Lindsey Graham, have vowed to defeat, because, they argue, the deal would have the opposite effect and instead clear the way for Iran to develop nuclear weapons.
Watch for the candidates to stake out their position on the Iran deal, and see how closely they are willing to align their policy with old-school establishment conservatives like McCain, who has lost favor among the right, even in his home state of Arizona.
4. Women’s health issues
Jeb Bush seriously stepped in it on the stump this week while defending the effort by Republican senators to defund Planned Parenthood. In an off-script moment, Bush said, “I’m not sure we need a half a billion dollars for women’s health.” A pretty big flub coming from a dude who’s never had a Pap smear, mammogram or taken a birth control pill. It also gave Hillary Clinton a prime opening to slam Bush as tone deaf to women’s issues.
Look for candidates to try to score off Bush in the debate tonight by bragging about their achievements in the areas of women’s health and women’s rights in an effort to pick up a bit of the lady vote.
Each election cycle, attracting the Hispanic vote becomes increasingly crucial for victory. Donald Trump, along with some inflammatory remarks calling illegal immigrants “rapists” and criminals, has staked out the position that illegal immigration is one of the biggest threats to the U.S. and that the only solution is to build a wall along the border of Mexico — paid for by the Mexican government. While some may just roll their eyes and say The Donald may be just a little too into watching Game of Thrones and channeling his inner Jon Snow, Hispanics have called out his politics as divisive and racist. Republicans are freaking out about the impact losing the entire Hispanic vote will have in the general election, prompting Republican Party Chairman Reince Priebus to put in a call to Trump and ask him to knock it off. Trump hasn’t.
Look for candidates to try to take a more pragmatic policy approach to immigration and start to propose immigration reforms that offer a pathway to citizenship for some.
6. Middle class economics
Taking a page from the wild popularity of populists like Elizabeth Warren and even Democratic presidential hopeful Bernie Sanders, Republicans have started to embrace the idea that the middle class is being squeezed out of existence. Look for candidates to propose sweeping tax cuts and incentives for the middle class and talk about onerous regulation. Rand Paul is the most prepared to talk about economic solutions, with his own flat tax proposal that simplifies the code and shrinks government until it can be drowned in the old proverbial bathtub.
7. Who’s not there
This debate will be shaped as much by the six candidates who didn’t make the prime time stage as those who will stand in tonight’s limelight. Candidates like Rick Perry, who gave us some of the best moments of the 2008 Republican primary debates, didn’t make the cut Fox News established to try to limit the number of debaters to the top 10.
The bottom seven, Rick Perry, Rick Santorum, Bobby Jindal, Carly Fiorina, Lindsey Graham, George Pataki and Jim Gilmore, will be relegated out of prime time to a debate to be aired at 5:00 p.m. EST. But it’s hard to imagine any of these bottom seven candidates will be able to compete with the top 10 candidates debating in prime time. Fox News and its head, Roger Ailes, many allege, have far too much power over the GOP and which candidates are given attention.