On Thursday, the presidential primary season will finally hit its first major televised event: Fox News' Republican presidential debate, a hotly anticipated clash between the 10 highest-polling members of the GOP field. That 10-person cutoff has spurred intense acrimony from the candidates who didn't make the cut, such as Rick Perry, Lindsay Graham, Carly Fiorina, and Rick Santorum. But it's great news for the people at the top: The Republican debate will center Donald Trump and Jeb Bush in a battle for GOP frontrunner status.
It's assured at this point that Trump will be the man standing at dead center, by virtue of his still-escalating surge. A pre-debate poll by Bloomberg found that he's got more than double the support Bush has right now, at 21 percent to just 10 percent, respectively.
Nonetheless, Bush has been reliably polling in the number two position since the campaign season began, with Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker hot on his heels, meaning Bush will likely be positioned right alongside Trump when the big event begins. It's sure to be a striking contrast — the renegade, wildly offensive billionaire who become a big source of angst for establishment Republicans, and the establishment's dynastic safety valve.
There's really no comparison between the two men in the political realm. Bush was a twice-elected governor (of Florida, sure, but still), while Trump has no political experience on any level. Up until he announced his presidential run earlier this year, in fact, his foremost claim to political fame was his longstanding role as a pretend candidate, whipping up publicity every now and then about how he might run, then bowing out before making anything official. That, and being perhaps the world's most famous birther.
Under normal circumstances, it'd be wildly overstating things to call the first debate of the primaries a "must-win" for anybody. As ace statistician Nate Silver pointed out at FiveThirtyEight, Trump's current frontrunning position isn't all that different from the 2012 surges of historical footnotes like Newt Gingrich or Herman Cain, and he's likely to fall short one the field starts thinning, and supporters of longshot niche candidates start flocking to more viable options.
But there's something to be said for the optics of having a bombastic personality like Trump standing right next to Bush, and how that could impact potential voters' senses of them. In the event Trump sputters and makes a fool of himself — not an impossible outcome by any measure, considering he's the same guy who called Mexican immigrants "rapists" within the first five minutes of his presidential announcement speech — then the calmer, polished Bush is right there to chime in, perhaps with an appropriately statesmanlike tsk-tsk.
But if Trump manages to fire up the audience in the debate hall — again, not impossible, considering the 2012 GOP debates brought us thunderous applause for dangerous overapplication of the death penalty, and the infamous "let him die" moment — then Bush being at one shoulder could hurt. Body language is a big part of any televised debate, and Trump figures to look brash and confident, if nothing else. If Bush senses that he's losing the room, or perhaps misreading the more fervent impulses of his own party's base, it could make for a damaging visual contrast: a triumphantly blunt Trump and a tentative, calculating Bush.
Of course, there's a host of other candidates there, too, and it'll be interesting to see what strategy the field takes — specifically, whether they'll try to attack Trump, or focus attacks on candidates more widely believed to be long-term threats, like Bush or Walker. The debate is scheduled for Thursday evening, airing on Fox News at 9 p.m. ET. Even if you're as far from a Republican as it gets, it figures to be fascinating viewing.
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