Considered the ultimate wild card, Donald Trump is complicating debate strategy for GOP presidential candidates now scrambling to prepare for their first face-to-face meeting on national television.
The billionaire businessman, who has dominated the 2016 Republican race in recent weeks, threatens to do the same when the top 10 GOP candidates — as determined by national polls — face off on Aug. 6. It’s a high-risk, high-reward event for candidates eager to stand out yet wary to fall victim to one of Trump’s bombastic attacks.
“It’s the No. 1 unavoidability,” said former House Speaker Newt Gingrich, a 2012 GOP candidate who had a knack for standing out in debates.
“Do not try to match him in anger and in aggressiveness. It’s not possible,” Gingrich warned Trump’s rivals. “He’s a very instinctively aggressive guy, and if you try to dance with him on his strengths he’ll run over you.”
Despite his long shot status, the reality television star has commanded attention and seen his poll numbers rise after firing off provocative comments about immigrants, his presidential rivals and critics in both parties.
His supporters love him because he’s willing to say what others only think. But that makes him dangerous in a debate setting, says Charlie Black, a leading GOP strategist who has worked on multiple presidential campaigns.
“Just try to ignore him,” Black said. “The less attention you give him the better. I wouldn’t even look at him.”
That’s easier said than done in a nationally televised program where Trump is sure to play a central role — literally, if he’s positioned at center stage as the leader in recent polls.
Count former Texas Gov. Rick Perry as among the candidates eager for a showdown, although he may not qualify for the meeting in Cleveland. Only the top 10 candidates in national polling will be allowed on stage. With 16 declared candidates, several high-profile Republicans will be left out. Perry is on the bubble.
“If Donald Trump wants to sit on the stage and talk about solutions, I’m going to be happy to have that conversation,” Perry said on Fox News. “But if all he’s going to do is throw invectives, then I’m going to push back and I’m going to push back hard.”
Sen. Rand Paul of Kentucky said that he’s ready to be tested.
“You have to be able to stand your ground,” Paul said, because politics is “somewhat of a body combat sport.”
Even without Trump’s emergence, the first debate promises to be unruly.
Never have more than 10 candidates taken the stage for a televised Republican presidential debate. Part of the problem is basic math. In a 90-minute debate featuring so many candidates, there could be only enough time for four or five questions — with little time left over for the interaction between candidates that makes for an actual debate.
And few campaigns expect Trump to respect the time limits or other rules established by organizers.
While there were some rumblings about trying to bar Trump from the stage, some GOP leaders say they’re happy about Trump’s participation, predicting that it will attract a far larger audience, exposing new people to Republican ideas.
“If I were Fox, I would be thrilled that Trump has made this so intense so early because they’ll have a much higher viewership than they would have three or four weeks ago before Trump got on a roll,” Gingrich said.
Ron Kaufman, a senior adviser to 2012 nominee Mitt Romney who is supporting Jeb Bush, said Trump offers a prime-time opportunity to lesser-known candidates to get attention.
“I think they have to pick a fight with Trump,” Kaufman said.
Many candidates are hard at work. Bush, one of the top contenders, recently brought in two veterans of Romney’s 2012 campaign to help coach him. Aides say Bush will fill much of his schedule this week with debate preparation in Florida.
Bush has not participated in a debate since his successful re-election campaign for governor in 2002. “My objective with this is to, wherever I can, share my record,” Bush said. He said he’ll go into the debate without thinking about Trump or any rival but that he’s “not certain how all this plays out.”
Paul perhaps summed up the field’s feeling best when asked how he prepares to face someone like Trump: “Very carefully,” he said.