After Fox News broke cable news records with its first Republican debate in August, CNN takes its turn Wednesday hoping for similar spectacular number.
In moderator Jake Tapper‘s biggest night in his CNN career, he’ll try to generate substance in addition to sound bites from a cast of Donald Trump and the variety of once-thought-of-front-runners relegated to political life support.
Trump has been weaving the same “Make America Great” stump speech with traditional and social media attacks against his competition for months; now it’s time to see if the real estate mogul tries to accelerate his surge five months before the Iowa caucus. Here are the 5 biggest storylines ahead of Wednesday’s debate.
1. As Summer Turns to Fall, Will Trump Bring the Substance or Enter New Silly Season?
Donald Trump is the undisputed frontrunner, but as the calendar turns to fall, so will negative advertisement season. With candidates like Jeb Bush armed with 100+ million in funds to assault the Donald, it would behoove the real estate mogul to offer a little more meat on the bone than he did at the first GOP debate or subsequent interviews.
“I think the press is more eager to see it [policy] than the voters, to be honest,” Trump said about complaints about the lack of specific policy proposals he’s offered. “I think the voters like me, they understand me, they know I’m going to do the job.”
That attitude won’t cut it the closer we get to the Iowa caucus, as voters enjoying the Trump show might think twice if Trump continues to wear a fancy hat and rant against anyone in his way while other sitting governors and senators present policy papers and plans.
Whether Trump surprises political media pundits with a few specifics or continues to improvise is the biggest storyline ahead of Wednesday’s debate. And of course, whatever next-level rhetorical bombs the Donald tosses on-stage.
2. Will the One-Time Presumptive Frontrunners Please Stand Up?
Bush, Walker, Rubio and Christie are just some of the established Republican figures once thought of to be big players in the 2016 presidential field before the Tour De Trump invaded.
The debate is critical for Bush and Walker in particular. For Bush, Trump has successfully branded him with the “low energy” tagline. There’s also the bad optics of a candidate with over $100 million in the bank not getting him above single digits in the polls.
Establishment Republican pundits and donors want to see a more lively, forceful Bush hit back at Trump’s often nonsensical attacks. It’s not Bush’s nature to go on the offensive, but ask former assumed frontrunners who quickly fell to nowheresville like Rudy Giuliani if they regret not going bigger and bolder early on.
3. Carly Fiorina’s Grand Stand
The former Hewlett-Packard CEO made the cut for the primetime debate this time around and has made some headlines as of late by cleverly hitting back at Trump’s sophomoric attacks on her looks.
Fiorina earned high praise among media analysts for her performance during the Fox “Happy Hour” debate in August, so another big performance–this time on the same stage as Trump–might propel her up the polls to top 3 territory along with fellow non-politicians Trump and Dr. Ben Carson.
Unlike Trump, Fiorina has offered an array or specifics she would do as president, including creating economic policy to reignite small business. If she mixes that with a strong counter attack on Trump, we might be looking at the next big thing in the GOP presidential field.
4. Forget the Candidates–How About Some Real Issues
Donald Trump’s feud with Rosie O’Donnell is good and all, but how’s he going to defend America against ISIS? Jeb Bush has thrown out the GOP playbook on immigration; what’s his proposal for taming the never-ending gun violence epidemic continuing to permeate the headlines?
Dr. Ben Carson is the only African American in the GOP field: does he think there needs to be specific programs geared at fixing the abysmal unemployment rate for African American youths, or does he continue to focus on helping everyone over specific groups?
These are just some of the policy issues left out of the Fox debate; CNN will most likely go for a greater range of topics instead of the infamous “gotcha” questions that Republican candidates have railed against during the exciting days of Sarah Palin’s 2008 rise.
5. Tapper’s Time?
CNN has a crowded political talent field, with Wolf Blitzer and Anderson Cooper serving as go-to political anchors for both debates and election nights for years. With Jake Tapper‘s arrival in 2013, that field got even more crowded.
Solo moderating the GOP presidential debate is Tapper’s biggest night in his brief CNN career, and make no mistake, he’s looking to be in the morning-after headlines as much as the candidates.
Tapper is known for being respected equally among Democrats and Republicans, but he’ll have his hands full as the candidates featured up in storyline number 2 will certainly be throwing more rhetorical bombs back at Trump.
His usual measured tone with a few cross-examinations won’t be enough to get a strong A grade. He’ll need to be pushy at times while going longer in pushing back against Trump when he delves into reality TV mode.