If you are a political wonk today is Christmas in August.
Tonight 17 Republican presidential hopefuls will make their case to the American people. The top 10 poll ranked candidates will take the prime time stage at 9PM. Seven remaining contestants will precede them at 5PM. A record 15 million are expected to tune in to the FOX NEWS produced event; the largest audience in cable news history.
Here are a few of the things that I will be looking for.
TRUMP – All eyes tonight will be on the surprising front runner; Donald Trump. No matter what Trump does he WILL make news. The question is will we see the bombastic, opinionated non-scripted Trump that has doubled up his shocking lead over his closest challengers? Or will we see a more thoughtful, well prepared, dare we say presidential Trump that aspires to be the leader of the free world. How will he respond if attacked? Will he stumble if asked for policy specifics? Trump already has some seasoned political operatives grudgingly admitting that he may be the real deal. A good performance tonight will legitimize his frontrunner status.
BUSH – Jeb Bush started out strong but he has wobbled of late. His performance as a candidate has paled in comparison to his ability to raise campaign funds. His recent campaign appearances have been plagued by stumbles and gaffs. He often seems uncomfortable out on the stump. Many have questioned his toughness and his commitment to the race. Tonight he has an opportunity to show his $100 million dollar donors that he not only wants to be in the race but that he is willing to fight for the prize.
FROM OUT OF NOWHERE – I am an avid sports guy. I have seen hundreds championship games in all the major sports. I can tell you that often times it is a relatively overlooked personality that steps out of the shadows to have the biggest impact on the biggest stage. Might that be the case tonight? For example, Mike Huckabee has been largely ignored by the media. But Huckabee is the only person on that stage that has been through this debate process before. Will Huckabee be able to draw on that experience to emerge from the shadows? Or will someone on the 5PM undercard give a performance so newsworthy as to launch himself/herself into the top tier.
Tonight’s debate is more about entertainment and performance than it is about substance and specifics. I doubt those of us old enough to remember the event can recall the policy differences between Kennedy and Nixon. But we remember the startling screen shots of the young composed Kennedy and the sweaty rumpled Nixon. We remember Reagan’s “There you go again” to Jimmy Carter. We remember Lloyd Bentsen chastising Dan Quale: “I knew John F. Kennedy. John F. Kennedy was my friend. You sir are no John Kennedy." We remember Rick Perry's "Oops!" and Mitt Romney's $10,000 wager. Will there be that kind of “moment’ tonight?
Optics matter! This will be the first opportunity that many of the viewers will get to look at these candidates. In order to emerge from this crowded field you have to project strength, likability and some command of the issues. If you aspire to win the presidency you have to make a positive impression tonight. There just aren’t that many head to head opportunities to let this moment pass.
The stakes tonight cannot be overstated.