Washington DC, United States – There’s the celebrity billionaire with a knack for outlandish, blunt comments; the governor of Wisconsin who has tried to restrict abortion laws; and the contender whose brother and father were both US presidents.
These are some of the Republicans vying for the spot currently held by Barack Obama.
But first they must secure their party’s nomination and square off in the first primary debate, a nationally televised event to be held on August 6, in Cleveland, Ohio.
This is the most highly anticipated presidential election-related event to date, not only because of the record number of contenders involved, but also because of the drama surrounding celebrity tycoon, Donald Trump, who is known for his bombastic rhetoric.
“This is the first time that Republican voters are going to be able to see the candidates in one place, to size them up and hear from them directly,” said Bradley Blakeman, who served as a senior staff member of former President George W Bush between 2001 and 2004.
“This is the ‘coming out’ party for the party,” Blakeman said.
An average of recent national polls – made public on Tuesday – determined the top 10 candidates who will go up on stage at the GOP debate.
With 17 candidates, the primary debate had to be divided into two forums. During the main event, 10 of the highest leading candidates in the polls will butt heads on local and foreign policy issues. The other debate will take place before the main event for the bottom seven presidential hopefuls.
The prime-time, two-hour forum will involve three hosts – all from Fox News – asking myriad questions of the top 10 candidates.
“Because the Iranian deal is within a 60-day review period [by Congress], you can guarantee you will hear about that during the debate,” said Blakeman, who is a Republican strategist.
“You will see a question on immigration, tax reform, and healthcare for sure. These topics will dominate the first debate,” Blakeman asserted.
The unlikely candidate
But even before Tuesday’s cut-off weeded out the bottom candidates, some contenders who had been faring well in the latest polls, had their spot at the debate all but secured: Trump, Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker, and former Florida Governor Jeb Bush.
Many Americans were surprised that Trump is currently the leading candidate for the Republican party nomination. Before announcing his candidacy, this unlikely frontrunner was mostly known for his wealth and signature hairdo.
But lately it has been his vitriol against immigrants that has been making headlines.
“We have to stop illegal immigration. We have to. They’re killing us at the border. They’re killing us in trade,” Trump told supporters in Arizona last July. “They’re bringing drugs, they’re bringing crime, they’re rapists.”
While his blunt message resonated with some of those who live on border states, it struck a nerve with many other Americans, so much so that companies like Macy’s, Univison and NBC Universal cut ties with him.
“I think he’s hurting the Republican party in the long run because … they need to get more Hispanic votes,” said Maricruz Magowan, an economic and political analyst based in Washington DC.
“[However,] I would not disregard his candidacy as not serious,” Magowan warned.
According to observers, all eyes will be on Trump on Thursday either way – the real estate mogul will be fittingly placed at the centre of the stage because candidates are positioned according to their ranking in the polls.
But it will be harder for him on the podium, with nine other candidates and a mere 90 seconds for a rebuttal.
“[They will all be] required to respond to a common set of questions,” said Barry Burden, a professor of political science at the University of Wisconsin-Madison.
“Because the debate is likely to start shaking up the field, the stakes are high for all of the candidates,” Burden said.
The sensible candidate
Besides Trump, analysts are keeping an eye on Scott Walker, a college dropout who worked his way up to governor of the state of Wisconsin.
Walker, who has been running near the top in national polls of Republican primary voters, eliminated collective bargaining rights for most public unions in his state, earning him points with core Republican voters.
“He is appealing in part because of his record of conservative legislative accomplishment in a swing state like Wisconsin, and his relatable Midwestern roots,” said Burden, who also directs the university’s Election Research Centre.
Walker will want to reinforce these strengths in Thursday’s debate in contrast with the other contenders, who can point to fewer policy accomplishments and less connection to middle America.
“In particular, he will portray himself as more sensible than Donald Trump and having less baggage than Jeb Bush,” Burden said.
The resourceful candidate
Besides sharing the same last name with two former US presidents, John Ellis Bush, better known as Jeb, has raised over $100 million for his candidacy – more money than any other Republican contender.
But, he has already landed in hot water, caught off guard when questions arose over whether he defended the war in Iraq. He was eventually forced to address the issue head on, saying he wouldn’t have supported it knowing what he does now.
Even though it excludes citizenship, Bush’s plans to offer a path for legal status for undocumented immigrants may alienate him from the party’s more conservative base. But it could also mean drawing in Hispanic voters angered by Trump, and Latino leaders are keeping an eye on him.
“He’s one of several candidates [we’re keeping an eye on],” said Alfredo Ortiz, president of Jobs Creators Network, a Washington, DC-based business coalition.
“I think the more [candidates] that enter [the race], the more conversation takes place, and hopefully the conversations always revolve around our economy and job growth,” Ortiz said.
Winning the first debate does not guarantee the party’s nomination, but the stakes this Thursday are high nonetheless.
Candidates will get to make a first impression with voters on prime-time television, and appeal to new donors – and appease existing ones. Stumbling also could set a contender back or even push him or her out of the race early on.
This happened to former Texas Governor Rick Perry, who will be taking another shot at the nomination this year. During the November 2011 GOP primary debate he forgot one of the three government agencies he said he would cut if elected president; the incident ultimately led to his downfall.
“It’s three agencies of government, when I get there, that are gone: commerce, education and – what’s the third one? I forget the other one, let’s see,” he said as other candidates and the audience burst into laughter.
But with no legal restrictions on the total amount of money wealthy donors can contribute to candidates and political action committees (PACS), it may still be possible for the ‘Rick Perrys’ to make a comeback.
According to Blakeman, “The main thing for all of them is to say something memorable, not make any mistakes, and try not to be trumped by Donald Trump.”