GOP 2016 hopefuls gather for first debate

David Jackson

CLEVELAND — The stage is set, the players are assembling, and the plot focuses on a character who has never been in this kind of show before.

Flags fly in front of the Quicken Loans Arena in Cleveland on Aug. 5, 2015, the day before the first Republican presidential debate.

Donald Trump is at the center of Thursday's Republican debate in Cleveland, while more experienced rivals try to figure out how to deal with the novice candidate who sits atop most GOP polls.

In looking forward to his first-ever debate, Trump said he wants to talk about the issues but is also prepared to engage competitors who are critical.

"If I'm attacked, I have to, you know, do something back," Trump said Wednesday on ABC's Good Morning America.

"But I'd like it to be very civil."

The nine other candidates who will share the stage with Trump have said little about how they plan to challenge the brash businessman.

In the prime-time session sponsored by Fox News, Trump will be flanked by nine other candidates who scored the highest in an aggregate of polls: Jeb Bush, Scott Walker, Mike Huckabee, Ben Carson, Ted Cruz, Marco Rubio, Rand Paul, Chris Christie and John Kasich.

"I'm going to try to do my best to communicate to the American people and have a good time," Huckabee, the former governor of Arkansas, told Fox News. "And I hope that America sees that Republicans have a pretty darn good field of candidates to choose from."

GOP presidential candidates Jeb Bush, Ben Carson, Chris Christie, Ted Cruz, Mike Huckabee, John Kasich, Rand Paul, Marco Rubio, Donald Trump and Scott Walker.

Trump, whose candidacy was dismissed as a joke less than two months ago, says his lack of political experience is an asset with voters who are fed up with career politicians.

Some of the other candidates have criticized Trump over his résumé and some of his more outspoken statements. They have said his criticism of Mexican immigrants — saying that too many of them are rapists and criminals — will hurt the party with Hispanic voters, the fastest growing segment of the electorate.

Many of the issues Trump has championed are likely to surface in the debate. That includes, in addition to immigration, trade policy and protests that lawmakers are not doing enough to address the nation's problems.

Republicans may also be quizzed about how they plan to repeal and replace President Obama's health care plan, how they would change the battle against the Islamic State, and how they could end federal funding for Planned Parenthood.

Two of Trump's most outspoken opponents — Rick Perry and Lindsey Graham — won't be on the stage with him. They failed to crack the top 10 in the polls compiled by Fox News used to cast the prime-time debate.

Seven candidates will be in an afternoon debate. In addition to Perry and Graham, Rick Santorum, Bobby Jindal, Carly Fiorina, George Pataki and Jim Gilmore will all participate in the forum.

The prime-time debate will feature another well-funded candidate besides Trump: Jeb Bush, who finished second in the polls averaged by Fox.

The son and brother of presidents, Bush's debate experience is also a question mark. He hasn't been in one since his 2002 re-election bid as governor of Florida.

Bush will be one of two Floridians on the stage. Rubio, a 44-year-old U.S. senator, figures to promote himself as the leader of a new generation of Republicans.

Walker, the governor of Wisconsin, averaged a third-place finish in Fox's poll survey and will be looking to build momentum against both Trump and Bush.

Cruz, a senator from Texas, and Paul, a senator from Kentucky, will try to build their base of Tea Party supporters who believe the government is too large and intrusive.

Trump won't be the only first-time debater in Cleveland. Retired neurosurgeon Ben Carson will also be making his debut and has said that Trump's rise proves that Americans will be receptive to a non-politician.

Christie, the governor of New Jersey, has often discussed the economy during his campaign, including the need to rein in what he describes as out-of-control entitlement spending.

The Cleveland debate also has a local favorite: Kasich, the governor of Ohio. He rose to the 10th and final spot in recent polling.

Democrats, not surprisingly, expressed skepticism that the GOP's choice to hold their first debate, and their nominating convention next year, in the city, a heavily African-American Democratic stronghold, would help Republicans win in the country’s quintessential swing state.

“I’m confident that when they get a close look, they won’t like what they see,” said Debbie Wasserman Schultz, chairwoman of the Democratic National Committee, said of Cleveland residents.

Whatever happens Thursday night, bear in mind: This is just the first act.

There will be several more debates before Republicans cast the first votes of the nominating season at the Iowa caucuses. There will also be debates before primaries in New Hampshire and South Carolina.

Pollster Frank Luntz said Thursday's debate could set viewership records, thanks to the candidate at center stage.
"They want to see Trump on stage," Luntz said."It's not like he's a fringe candidate. Donald Trump is leading — he's leading! Who would have thought?"

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Contributing: Chrissie Thompson, The Cincinnati Enquirer