Pity the Republican candidate who tries to land a “Senator, you are no Jack Kennedy” style jab during the televised debate on Thursday.
The temptation to administer a condescending smackdown will be almost irresistible. After all, the stage will be filled with a motley crew of contestants ranging from solidly credentialed public servants to clownish egotists. A certain member of the latter camp has been hogging the media spotlight for weeks, leading a bemused public to wonder who or what will put an end to The Donald Phenomenon, and when.
It’s not likely to happen Thursday. Rather, the first GOP forum will be a test to show who has the most restraint.
Donald Trump’s participation, as the party frontrunner no less, could draw many more viewers to the event than would otherwise tune in, if only to see what hijinks he’ll get up to. Other candidates should be advised to keep their distance.
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Thursday will be the first opportunity many of them will have to make their case to the nation live on television. They’ll have 90 minutes to showcase their views and try to stand out from the herd. That breaks down to nine minutes per candidate, unless one manages to dominate. And that is extremely unlikely.
Keeping a lid on the more boisterous personalities that are sure to try to dominate will be three moderators from Fox News: Bret Baier, Megyn Kelly and Chris Wallace. It might take that many mouths to keep this on track. And Baier, Kelly and Wallace are all seasoned in the tactics of channeling blather. They are masters of interruption and the dismissive smirk. It’s what passes for “debate” far too often on cable news networks. Shut down the speaker before they can make a point that would be difficult to counter.
It is these agents of Fox News that Trump and other loose cannons must beware, for the fair and balanced network will have a great deal of influence on their fortunes going forward.
The candidates with the most adult demeanor won’t likely make much of an impression in this go-round. There will be too many toddlers in the sandbox. The best a Jeb Bush or a Scott Walker can hope for is to emerge unscathed. Trump has been withering in his put-downs of both candidates, and he’s unlikely to let up on Thursday. If he tempts them to get down in the mud with him, it won’t be pretty.
The likely lineup so far includes four firebrands, candidates who excel at verbal bravado: Trump, Sen. Ted Cruz of Texas, retired neurosurgeon Ben Carson and former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee. New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie also made the cut. A spot in the prime-time debate is reserved for the top 10 candidates as determined by an average of five national polls. A separate debate will be televised earlier in the evening featuring the six candidates who place lower in the polls.
The safe approach would be for everyone to remain focused on Hillary Rodham Clinton and Barack Obama as targets. That would be boring, but right now boring probably looks pretty good to the Republican establishment. Don’t count on Trump to play along. He has been trashing other leading Republican candidates in ways that must make Democrats smile, and he has encouraged speculation that he could run in the general election as a third-party candidate if he is not “treated fairly” in the GOP primaries.
No question, The Donald is a problem for the Republicans. He genuinely appeals to a radical, even insurgent segment of the Republican base not dissimilar to the ranks of the tea party movement. He has pandered to their xenophobia and general penchant for grievance while posing as a bold truth-teller amid a feeble field of establishment sell-outs.
To believe that Trump can be president is delusional. A GOP nomination of the overbearing tycoon — itself a long shot — or a third-party bid would make the Oval Office a lock for Clinton. The trick for Republicans is to make him see reason, and get him to go quietly into that good night. But don’t bet he’s going to like it.
Mary Sanchez, an opinion-page columnist for The Kansas City Star, may be reached via email at email@example.com.