Tonight’s GOP Debate: What You Need to Know

CNN hosts the next GOP debate tonight at 8 pm ET.

Sponsors are paying six-figure rates for commercial spots as many media watchers wonder if Donald Trump’s continued presence will drive another 29 million to tune-in as they did for the Fox News Debates.

1. What’s the format?

The top 10 candidates tied to an August 6th poll average plus interviews with 6,000 Republican voters means the following candidates will be on the stage (listed in poll-rank order): Donald Trump, Ben Carson, Jeb Bush, Ted Cruz, Scott Walker, Marco Rubio, Carly Fiorina, Mike Huckabee, John Kasich, Rand Paul and Chris Christie. As Fiorina and Huckabee were tied for seventh, Christie qualified as an “11th” candidate.

Once again, Trump will sit at center-stage. Carson will join him on his left and Bush to his right. Cruz, Rubio, Huckabee and Paul will string out along the right wing while Walker, Fiorina, Kasich and Christie will flank Bush to the left.

The earlier debate, which begins at 5 pm ET, features just four candidates after former Texas governor Rick Perry folded his campaign tent over the weekend. Rick Santorum, George Pataki, Bobby Jindal and Lindsey Graham all need a Fiorina-sized miracle to gain relevance.

2. Who Wins the Early Debate?

It might not mean much at this stage, but the four early debate candidates hope to score big points as Fiorina did in the Fox News debates. Her performance vaulted her in the polls and ultimately into the main event on Wednesday. Jindal, Louisiana’s governor, is most-likely to take a non-Establishment tone of the four remaining candidates. He’s been openly and brutally critical of the Obama Administration for years.

3. Which Candidate Has the Most to Lose?

Jeb Bush needs to come out of this debate as the clear winner. Bush needs to show enthusiasm, character, humor and outright desire to be president — all things he’s failed to demonstrate. The biggest mistake he can make is try and trade insults with Trump. He must try to sell the non-Establishment crowd on his “conservative” credentials.

4. Which Candidate Needs a Mulligan?

Scott Walker, who served as an early favorite among Tea Party supporters and non-Establishment types has dropped considerably in the polls since his performance in the first debate. Critics claimed Walker stuck to simple campaign talking points making him appear less genuine. Rumors swirled Walker might drop out after he cancelled a speaking engagement in California.


5. Candidate People Want to Hear:

Ben Carson speaks softly — almost as if he’s going to fall asleep. He intrigues people or two reasons: non-political outsider status and intelligence. In many ways, Carson’s soft-spoken nature makes him the antithesis of Trump, but both are tops in the polls because they are honest, non-political types. People want to learn more about Carson as an alternative should Trump crash.

6. Is there another Megyn Kelly?

Not quite, but moderator Hugh Hewitt is a radio talk show host who favors Establishment candidates and policies. He’s already noted he doesn’t support Trump and loves Rubio. Can Hewitt avoid human temptation and provide a neutral line of questioning for all candidates?

7. Who’s the shark in the water?

Kasich will be looking to serve as the Establishment alternative to Bush. He’ll try to differentiate himself from Bush without making him appear to have the same Establishment political background and policies.

8. Is there a loose cannon?

Most people would say it’s Trump, shockingly, he saved his first debate vitriol for Rosie O’Donnell and Megyn Kelly. Trump treated fellow candidates with politeness while on stage. Paul, on the other hand, seemed intent to attack Trump from the start. The Kentucky Senator has run an underwhelming campaign and he might do or say something desperate to get attention or take Trump down with him.

9. Allies and Enemies:

Cruz and Trump will defend each other. Carson and Fiorina might team up. Fiorina, Paul, Bush, Christie and Rubio all have axes to grind with Trump. Jindal has assumed the mantle of Trump attack dog and he’s not going to be on the main stage. If you’re a candidate not mentioned on this list — like Kasich — is that a good or bad thing?

10. What happens at the end of the debate?

We might not know for a few weeks or even months. Trump continues to soak up polling percentage points no matter what he says or does. If Trump’s numbers start to dive after this debate, it will definitely signal alarm bells. The GOP Establishment will hustle to hasten the effect. Chances remain better-than-even several candidates will join Rick Perry back in the civilian world before the primaries.