Expect Wednesday night’s second GOP presidential debate to be open season on front-runner Donald Trump. The 11 top Republican contenders will take the stage at 8 p.m. ET at the Reagan Presidential Library in Simi Valley, Calif., and their unified goal appears to be to get something to stick to the billionaire real-estate mogul. Trump has so far proved to be made of something akin to Teflon.
There will also be a new dynamic on stage, with the field inching out to include Carly Fiorina, the former Hewlett-Packard executive who shined at the lower-tier debate Aug. 6. The debate is scheduled to last three hours, so the candidates will have plenty of time to lob their attacks. They also might get some help from CNN’s moderators, which will be encouraging participants to mix it up.
“My goal is more about: Let’s draw the contrasts between the candidates, and have them fight it out over these policies,” moderator Jake Tapper told the New York Times, adding, “Have them lay it all out so voters can see it.”
Here’s what each candidate needs to do Wednesday night (in the order of how they rank based on national polls, the criteria CNN used to figure out who should be on the stage):
1. Donald Trump
Trump remains the leader in the GOP race, and has even seen his poll numbers go up despite his flap with Fox News’ Megyn Kelly after the last debate.
He’ll again be center stage with a bull’s eye on him. He’s gotten into spats over the past month with Jeb Bush (“low energy”), Ben Carson (also low energy, not up to the job) and Fiorina (her face). But don’t expect much of a departure from his snappy remarks and personal comebacks on his rivals. In particular, how does he handle Fiorina? Many men have had trouble debating women, especially one primed to take him on.
Trump said he was pleased with his first performance, but he’s already clashed with one of the questioners this time around. On conservative radio host Hugh Hewitt’s radio show, Trump flubbed foreign-policy questions. Trump hit back the next day calling Hewitt a “third-rate radio announcer.” But don’t expect Hewitt to back down from tough questioning.
2. Ben Carson
The former neurosurgeon is the “it” candidate, and the stakes have never been higher for the political newcomer.
While he had an OK performance last time around (and apparently experienced some level of stage fright), the soft-spoken doctor didn’t seem comfortable getting into the back-and-forth of the last debate. Now he’s nipping at Trump’s heels, both nationally and in Iowa, and may have to show he can hold his own.
Carson tried hitting at Trump last week in criticizing his faith. Trump swatted back even harder, and it was Carson who apologized.
3. Jeb Bush
The former Florida governor didn’t have any stumbles in the last debate, but he didn’t stand out, either. Since then, he’s ratcheted up his attacks on Trump — and now he’ll have a chance to make them to his neighbor on the debate stage.
Trump has fired back, continuing to call Bush “very low energy.” Bush needs to shake that moniker, but Trump has seemed to get in his head. At one event in Florida, Bush proclaimed he would be a “high energy” president. Bush has also struggled to differentiate himself from his brother, George W. To try to fix his free fall in the polls, the superPAC supporting Bush just launched a massive ad buy to try to reintroduce the candidate in the early states.
4. Ted Cruz
The Texas senator continues to get mentioned as a dark horse, and was on the tips of tongues on a Tea Party activist conference call earlier this week, per NPR’s Sarah McCammon, who listened in. Cruz was a champion debater at Princeton, and it showed last time.
Expectations are high for Cruz again. Expect him to draw comparisons between himself and the other candidates — except Trump. No other rival has tiptoed around criticizing the reality TV star more than Cruz, who believes he can win over Trump’s supporters if Trump craters. Cruz is going to have to walk a fine line on Trump to distinguish himself.
5. Scott Walker
The Wisconsin governor faded into the background of last month’s debate, and he largely has on the campaign trail, too. His “everyman” approach hasn’t connected the way he would have liked, and he’s down to the low single digits in polling nationally. Before the summer, he was undisputed leader in Iowa, his neighboring state that was once seen as a must-win. That lead has vanished.
He still needs to find his footing in the race, and the debate gives him a new chance to do that on a national stage — something that’s becoming more critical with every day that his poll numbers go down and his fundraising wanes.
Almost no one needs a better showing Wednesday night than Walker, and donors are pointing that out.
“He has to do well in the debate — he just has to,” one donor told the Washington Post. “He’s got to have a good debate. Period.”
6. Marco Rubio
The Florida senator continues to be talked about as everyone’s second choice. He had a solid debate performance last time, and needs another one. CNN‘s John King predicted that — with political outsiders surging — Rubio will try to talk up his own anti-establishment credentials and try to shake the tarnish of Washington.
After all, Rubio was not the Washington choice in his 2010 race, and that’s a badge of honor he needs to remind people of. Rubio has run a low-key campaign, and continues to get positive ratings from Republicans. But he will have to show more to move out of the VP conversation and to be seen as the No. 1.
7. Mike Huckabee
Like Cruz, the former Southern Baptist preacher is a good debater and talker. Expect Huckabee to pick up the social-conservative mantle in the debate — his best shot at emerging from the pack like he did in 2008.
He was the strongest supporter of Rowan County, Ky., clerk Kim Davis in her refusal to sign same-sex marriage licenses — a big difference from Trump, Bush and others, who have said she needs to follow the law. Huckabee needs to stand out, and he can do that by reminding social and religious conservatives why they backed him eight years ago and get that spark back again.
tie-7. Carly Fiorina
The former Hewlett-Packard CEO may have been the last one included on the stage, but she could play a prominent role in the debate. She proved to be the biggest story last month in the Cleveland second-tier debate, but will be playing in the majors this time around.
That means taking on Trump to his face — and probably having more witty retorts about her own after the front-runner derided her appearance in an interview with Rolling Stone. (He says he was talking about her “persona.”) Fiorina had a creative response with a Web ad, though, and all eyes will be on her during this debate.
9. John Kasich
The Ohio governor had a strong debate performance last time and was well-received in his home state. But he’ll need another good performance, as he vies to be the Bush alternative in the “Establishment Bracket.”
But can he sell his compassionate stances on criminal justice, same-sex marriage and Medicare expansion without that home-field advantage?
10. Rand Paul
The Kentucky senator, also a good elocutionist, was the harshest against Trump in the first debate, but was summarily dismissed by the front-runner. Paul also sparred with New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie — a favorite target of his — over privacy.
But expect him to go after Trump with even more vigor this time.
“I think [Trump] deserves both barrels,” Paul told the Daily Caller. “I want to make sure everyone in the whole country knows he’s a fake conservative.”
He’s probably going to have to do that in a way that breaks through better than saying Trump is hedging his bets on a President Hillary Clinton. No one seemed to be buying it when Paul tried it the first time.
11. Chris Christie
The New Jersey governor feuded with Paul last time around — his only real, memorable flashpoint. But he needs to aim a little higher. Even Kasich appears more primed to make a move in the top tier of the “Establishment Bracket” than Christie does.
Without a standout performance, it’s hard to see what changes the course of Christie’s campaign at this point.
The ‘Kids’ Table’
The four candidates who won’t be on the prime-time stage — Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal, former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum, former New York Gov. George Pataki and South Carolina Sen. Lindsey Graham — will be the warm-up act at 6 p.m. ET.
They have two objectives: Stay alive, and try to stand out — most importantly, try to replicate what Fiorina was able to do to get out of the basement with the plastic cups. If they don’t have a breakthrough, it could be curtains for some. Former Texas Gov. Rick Perry ended his candidacy on Friday and didn’t want to be relegated for a second time to the lower-tier debate.
Jindal, in particular, has been going hard against Trump with Web ads and a forceful speech last week calling him “unstable,” a “narcissist” and a “carnival act.” Those harsh words are sure to continue, though Jindal hasn’t quite gotten the viral attention he thought he would get.
Graham, too, was an original target of Trump after the senior senator from South Carolina was among the first to deride the TV star. But Graham, even though he can be funny and laid-back on the stage, seemed too stoic in the last debate. It didn’t do his struggling campaign any favors.
Santorum, the 2012 runner-up, is still struggling and has not been part of the conversation of this campaign — despite already having visited all 99 counties in Iowa once again.
Pataki, despite signing the GOP loyalty pledge, said this week there’s no way he would vote for Trump. What would that mean if Trump got through and a certain former senator from New York was the Democratic nominee? Questions for moderators to ponder.