The first of many presidential debates kicks off Thursday on Fox News as 10 candidates square off in the primetime presidential debate, with the remaining seven who missed the cut debating in a candidates forum beforehand.
The media and political pundit pool have been champing at the bit for weeks in anticipation of the event, which will feature frontrunner Donald Trump’s first-ever political debate along with a potent lineup of current governors and senators as well as former leaders like Jeb Bush.
In preparation for the impending sound bite tsunami, here are the top five face offs ahead of the Fox debate.
1. Keep Calm and Trump On
Donald Trump has ignited both the GOP and the media since declaring in June, saying and doing whatever he damn well pleases. His shoot-from-the-hip, throw-all-the-bums-out approach has proven successful, as Trump sits far out in front of the Republican field — a notion that was laughable just two months ago.
Some of Trump’s most popular zingers have come at the expense of other candidates like Bush, Rick Perry, Lindsey Graham and others. The real estate mogul has downgraded expectations over the last week, claiming he’s not a professional debater and that he gets things done rather than constantly talking about them. He’s also exuded a more civil demeanor, forecasting he’ll be a lover, not a debater.
There’s as much chance of that happening as President Obama serving a third term.
Trump won’t lob bombs like the controversial comments he made about Sen. John McCain’s war service — he knows Fox’s moderator trio won’t let him slide — but he will go for a series of surgical strikes, attacking Bush on his immigration stance; Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker for his economic record; hell, he might even toss friend Chris Christie under the bus with references to “Bridgegate.”
He’ll be aggressive because he knows that’s what propelled him to his first-place, centerstage position to begin with. Trump also knows the networks and papers aren’t looking for policy talk and civility from him; he’s happy to be the headline factory they’ve come to depend on.
2. Bush 3.0
Political pundits on both sides of the aisle agree Jeb Bush has more to lose than any other Republican in Thursday’s debate.
After a series of awkward statements on everything from the Iraq War to how much he loves his dad, Bush needs to pull off a flawless, relatively uneventful performance.
But Fox News’ moderators, representing a network that’s criticized liberal pundits for repeatedly implicating George W. Bush when discussing the country’s current problems, will most surely bring up W’s dismal record on Iraq and the economy. After all, W isn’t just Jeb’s brother, but also the last Republican president, making it important to know how the youngest Bush differs from 43.
That poses a dilemma for Jeb: stick with “I love my brother and support his record” and get pummeled by both sides of the aisle, or suggest he would have done things differently and expect an angry midnight call from Ma and Pa Bush.
3. Fox Fight
This isn’t Chris Wallace, Bret Baier or Megyn Kelly’s first rodeo, with each having moderated debates before. But this might be the most highly-anticipated presidential debate in years.
The Fox trio won’t be competing with each other; two hours gives them more than enough time to score career-defining sound bites (e.g. Newt Gingrich excoriating CNN’s John King for having the nerve to ask about a reported affair).
But the three will be prepared for battle with the likes of Trump, Mike Huckabee and New Jersey’s Straight Talk Express Chris Christie. Of the three, Kelly is most likely to spark a memorable, take-no-talking-points sound bite.
4. The Best Of The Rest
Aside from Trump and Bush, the chances of a Wild West debate scene among the remaining candidates is smart money. Just squeaking into the debate, Govs. Christie and John Kasich will both seek to seize the opportunity for a poll bump off of a strong sound bite or two.
Sen. Rand Paul, once considered a dark-horse candidate, has been lost in the Trump-palooza; he’ll aim to resurrect his candidacy, portraying himself alone on an island in his aim to end wars instead of creating new ones. Former Gov. Huckabee, who won the 2008 Iowa Caucus and recently stepped into a Trump-like hole with his suggestion that President Obama is taking Israel close to the “door of the oven,” will also try to make some noise.
The wild card: Dr. Ben Carson, the only non-politician other than Trump. Carson rose to Republican stardom years ago for slamming Obamacare while the President sat beside him. One or two knockout sound bites, and Carson could see the biggest boost.
5. Media Mayhem
The press has been schizophrenic in its coverage of Trump, loving him, then hating him, then loving him again.
If Trump puts his foot in mouth on his biggest stage yet, it’ll be interesting to see which A-list anchor gets the first interview with him following the debate, and whether the line of questioning helps stop the bleeding or marks the beginning of the end of the Donald Express.