Donald Trump’s continuing surge in the polls has left his Republican rivals confused and exasperated. No matter how hard they try or what they say, the former reality star-turned-GOP frontrunner keeps defying the laws of political gravity.
As candidates prepare to invade Southern California for the second Republican debate at the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library in Simi Valley on Wednesday, political strategists and policy experts share some advice on how to best to debate the man increasingly known as “Teflon Don.”
1. Do not engage
“What the other candidates need to do is not engage in mudslinging,” GOP strategist and CNN political commentator Tara Setmayer told TheWrap. “Many people thought Marco Rubio won the [first] debate because he was authentic and above the fray. Those candidates who are capable of doing that would be wise to keep it in mind.”
2. Be Yourself
The worst thing candidates can do, according to political experts, is masquerade as a more extreme version of themselves. Authenticity is key. “What I would not do is try and be as aggressive as Trump,” Republican strategist Rob Stutzman told TheWrap. “Rand Paul tried that and had his head handed to him in the last debate. I would be dismissive or ignore or be funny.” Speaking of which…
3. Humor, humor, humor
During the last GOP debate, Ben Carson was able to show how one funny little line at the end of an otherwise sleepy debate performance can make a all the difference. The retired neurosurgeon had audience members cheering and hollering during his closing remarks at the Ohio debate with this zinger: “I’m the only one to take out half a brain, but if you went to Washington you would think someone had beat me to it.”
Experts say that’s perhaps the only way to make an impression in the currently overcrowded, Trump-dominated GOP field.
“There’s a dilemma,” Jack Pitney, professor of government at California’s Claremont McKenna College, told TheWrap. “On the one hand, if they ignore him they run the risk of looking weak. If they engage in argument, they’re making Trump the center of attention. Humor is really the one way around this; if you can get people laughing at him, you’ve won a considerable victory… It shows you’re in control and it’s very difficult for [Trump] to deal with ridicule.”
4. Bone up on foreign affairs
Trump may have mastered the art of the deal, but when it comes to foreign policy, he’s still an apprentice. Earlier this month, the business mogul revealed crater-size holes in his knowledge of the Middle East during an interview with conservative radio host Hugh Hewitt. Trump seemed lost as he tried to answer questions about foreign affairs, conflating Kurds with the Iranian Revolutionary Guard’s “Quds” force, and was unable to name the leaders of Hamas and Hezbollah, two of the world’s most dangerous and active terror groups.
Experts say candidates looking to expose Trump’s Achilles heel should bring their A-game when it comes to demonstrating a command of world affairs. “I expect foreign policy to be front and center during this debate,” Ford O’Connell, Republican strategist and adviser to John McCain in 2008, told TheWrap. “Particularly given the fact that Hewitt will be moderating.”
5. Keep it short and sweet
While this is a political debate, that doesn’t mean it should be boring. Candidates only have a few seconds to make an impression, not to mention 10 other competitors on stage. Making matters worse, no one can keep it simple like Trump. Going into a long-winded answer about a specific tax plan, experts say, may not be the best way to steal Trump’s thunder.
“Practice your soundbites,” said Pitney. “People aren’t going to grade Jeb Bush on elaborate policy arguments. You need good one-liners.”
6. Most importantly, don’t try to out-Trump Trump
While experts say rival candidates will have to step up their game, they also say that going too far to upstage the frontrunner could backfire in the long run. “Trump allows people to basically tell the establishment to kiss off and it feels good,” Stutzman said. “But it’s a different matter when you get to January right before the caucuses in Iowa when the electorate becomes serious.”