7 Things to Watch For in Tonight's GOP Presidential Debate

The Trump factor, pot legalization, immigration arguments, Rand Paul's stand-out moment, and more.


Foter / Gage Skidmore

Tonight, Fox News will host the very first GOP presidential debate, featuring 10 candidates of the 17 candidates running for the Republican presidential nomination. (The remaining candidates will compete in an undercard "happy hour" debate at 5 p.m.)

The 10 prime time candidates were selected according to their standing in recent polls—all of which put Trump in the lead, in most cases by double digits.

With Trump-mania in full force, interest in the show is sky-high, and many expect it to be the highest rated primary debate in history.

The format is designed to keep things moving. There are opening statements, and answers limited to one-minute; any candidate mentioned by another one will have 30 seconds to respond. How it will all play out is anyone's guess, but with a field as big as this one, and a race as complex and unpredictable, it's certain to be one of the more unusual political debates in memory.

Reason's staff will be live-tweeting both the prime time debate and the undercard, providing context, commentary, and, yes, a bit of snark in real-time. In the meantime, to help you get caught up and prepared for tonight's big event, here are seven things to watch for when the show starts:

1. Everything Trump: The Donald is leading the GOP field and thus will literally be center stage tonight. No one, possibly including Donald Trump himself, knows quite what to expect. What will he say? What will he do? Will he bash the other candidates? Make obviously false claims? Propose ludicrous non-policies in response to questions about what he might do as president? Wear that stupid red hat? Anything could happen!

What if he ignores the debate format and rules? (Megyn Kelly, one of three Fox News moderators, told Politico, "We have a plan, but we're not going to share it with you." Maybe it involves using the shot-clock buzzer for the Cleveland Cavs, whose arena is the location for the event?)

Or will Trump somehow defy expectations, perhaps by being calm and civil and coherent, and responding to questions by quoting CBO reports? (Ha, yeah, okay.) Trump, for better or for worse—alright, just for worse—is the star of tonight's show, its central figure and prime attraction.

2. How the rest of the stage reacts to Trump: While Trump will be the focus of the evening, it will also be worth watching how the rest of the candidates—some of whom, unlike Trump, actually have a chance to be the Republican nominee next year—respond to him. Texas Gov. Rick Perry has been running the most aggressively anti-Trump campaign so far, but he didn't make the cut for the main stage debate (he'll be in the undercard event during the 5 p.m. hour).

So it's an open question who, if anyone, will emerge as Trump's chief opponent. For some, like Jeb Bush and Scott Walker, attacking Trump too strongly is potentially dangerous—they're more likely to respond than go on the offense. Bush, in particular, may want to back off, given that, as the best-funded and best-recognized candidate in the field, he benefits more than any of the other non-Trump candidates from Trump's success. On the other hand, he's also one of the best positioned candidates to respond to Trump's hardline immigration rhetoric (more on that soon). 

For others, like candidate Ohio Gov. John Kasich, who just barely made the cut for the prime time debate, aggressively hitting Trump might be a way to get attention.

3. Does Rand Paul stand out from the crowd? As Brian Doherty reported yesterday, Rand Paul's Super PAC leaders say they're confident that Kentucky Sen. Rand Paul will perform well in the debate. But his campaign has been beset with reports of struggle and internal dysfunction recently, and yesterday's news that former senior staffer Jesse Benton—who heads one of those super PACs—had been indicted doesn't help.

But even ignoring the Benton troubles and the managerial struggles, Rand Paul's biggest problem may be that he has yet to find a way to break out from the rest of the Republican field. He was supposed to run as a different kind of Republican, but he hasn't really distinguished or define himself as a presidential candidate, especially on the core issues—privacy, drone strikes, foreign policy—that initially helped him gain attention. (He did, however, take a chainsaw to the tax code.)

Some of that, of course, is due to the fact that Donald Trump has sucked up so much of the attention over the last month. The debate stage might help level the playing field somewhat, and thus allow Rand Paul to finally stand out like he and his supporters have hoped.

4. Abortion, Planned Parenthood, and funding for women's health: Congressional Republicans spent the last few weeks teeing up a fight over Planned Parenthood's federal funding. While talking about that issue earlier this week, Jeb Bush said he is "not sure we need a half a billion dollars for women's health issues." The remark instantly made the rounds on social media, and prompted harsh immediate criticism from Hillary Clinton's campaign. Within hours Bush took it back, saying that he "misspoke."

Given the prominence of the Planned Parenthood fight, the swift walkback from Bush, and the history of Republicans wading awkwardly into issues involving women's health, it's likely that some version of will come up during the debate. We know basically how Bush will respond, but it's less clear how other candidates—in particular folks like Scott Walker (whose early strategy is built around playing to Iowa, which is quite socially conservative) and Mike Huckabee, who can be a socially conservative bomb-thrower, especially when he's looking for attention, might react.

5. How strongly do the candidates disagree over immigration? So far, no issue has roiled the 2016 race more than immigration. To the extent that Donald Trump's candidacy can be said to be anything at all, it's about opposition to immigration, and anger at undocumented immigrants already in the country. Trump has gone so far as to declare that, as president, he would deport all 11 million undocumented immigrants currently in the U.S. It's a plainly ridiculous idea that would be incredibly expensive to even attempt and would almost certainly fail. Some of the other candidates who will be on stage seem to know this: In 2013, Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker said he supports a path to citizenship for immigrants currently here illegally, although he's recently reversed himself. And as recently as February of this year, Jeb Bush said "there is no plan to deport 11 million people," and argued for a plan to give them legal status. Florida Sen. Marco Rubio, meanwhile, has sometimes struggled with questions about deportation, but was once a high-profile backer of a comprehensive immigration reform plan. The big question, then, is whether any of the candidates push back against the hardline immigration rhetoric that has come to dominate the GOP race so far.

6. What about legal pot? This is another issue that divides the GOP field. While none of the Republican contenders has come out swinging in wild favor of legal pot regimes in states like Washington and Colorado, several of tonight's contenders, including Jeb Bush and Ted Cruz, have said they believe that states should be allowed to make their own choices about whether to legalize weed. Chris Christie and Marco Rubio, on the other hand, have both said that, if elected president, they would enforce federal pot prohibition aggressively—raiding clinics and attempting to stop states from further pursuing legalization.

7. Spending, entitlements, and size of government: So far, the GOP's 2016 field has only talked about these issues sporadically. Chris Christie, once expected to be a front-runner, briefly attempted to make entitlement reform a central part of his campaign, but neither his campaign nor his entitlement push ever generated much interest. Jeb Bush got whacked for a few days for saying that he'd like to "phase out" Medicare, presumably replacing it with some sort of Paul Ryan-style premium support system, but hasn't followed up or released any details of his entitlement reform ideas (he has indicated that plans are forthcoming). Former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee, who in the number four slot leads the second tier of candidates, has styled himself as a defender of entitlements, Social Security in particular.

For a party that has branded itself as the party of limited government, these issues, and not Donald Trump, should be front and center. But while this year's GOP crop hasn't been totally silent on core domestic issues, they haven't, for the most part, attempted to make them a priority either. Given the presence about Trump and questions about his place in the race, it's doubtful that any of this will be the focus of tonight's face off, but it would be nice if these issues at least came up and received a bit of serious attention.