A Viewer's Guide to the Republican Presidential Debate

republican debate preview
A quick guide for the Republican presidential candidates on how to land a few punches and stay on your feet. Brian Snyder/Reuters

With 10 candidates in the top-tier debate and seven in the undercard (kid's table) debate, Thursday's Republican presidential debate in Cleveland is like a Rubik's Cube: There are countless ways to screw up. Each candidate has particular pressures, from getting noticed (Which one is Jim Gilmore?) to not blowing your lead (All hail the Donald).

Here's what each candidate needs to do at the big debate.

Donald Trump

Keep on, keepin' on. You're winning this thing, and the elites still don't understand why. They attribute it to "anger" rather than your tough-on-trade and immigration stands, and they think it's because you're colorful rather than because you're offering a real critique of political elites left and right. They'll try to bait you, either by saying you hate Mexicans or you're a closet liberal. Defend yourself. On the Mexican front, keep saying you employ lots of immigrants and you think our neighbors have savvy leadership when it comes to trade. Cite your recent trip to Laredo, Texas, and the warm welcome you got from local Hispanic officials. They'll surely try to make it sound like you're a liberal because you've given money to Democrats and have had some positions to the left of Herman Cain. Just say that's being a cunning businessman—and hey, to the extent your politics have changed, you've moved from left to right just like the sainted Ronald Reagan. They may try to trip you up on things like the prime minister of Cameroon or the price of milk. Just be you: "I can hire people to deal with Cameroon, and I don't shop at the supermarket because I'm really rich."

Jeb Bush

The temptation is to move to the right, attack Trump or do something to stop your stall in the polls. But that's going to seem forced, and people can feel desperation. Your best bet is a gentle reminder of the conservative things you've done in Florida, especially on abortion. You're not getting your share of the religious voters right now—so go get 'em, tiger. Look how well your brother's coming to Jesus was received. Talk up your conversion to Catholicism. It'll help people see you in a new light. You'll get bashed on Common Core and immigration. Hold your ground. Don't weasel.

Scott Walker

You're on a steady rise, maybe the beneficiary of the Trump surge, which seems to be coming at the expense of other mainstream pols. You're the toughest on immigration after Trump, so play up your positions, such wanting to cut legal immigration. Ditto your fight against public employee unions in Wisconsin. You don't always have the lightest touch, so don't be afraid to agree with Trump or Bush. It's not going to make you look bigger, not smaller. If you want to reinforce your points, echo some of the lesser candidates that you agree with, like Rubio or Christie. They're not in much danger of hurting you, so it will make you look nicer—and that never hurts.

Ben Carson

You're doing far better than folks might have expected. Is it because you're a famed pediatric neurosurgeon? A nonpolitician? Religious? African-American? All of the above? Whatever it is, you have some juice going into this thing, and when it comes to expectations, your floor is about most of your opponents ceilings. So take your game up a notch, talk a little bit about how you'd persuade Congress to do what you want as president. Tell some stories about your work in the African-American community. Note that the founders didn't start out as politicians either. The idea is to take the good feeling Republicans have for you and to show them that you're a plausible president, not just a protest vote.

Marco Rubio

Oh, Marco. You've fallen in the polls. No one's really paying attention right now. That's OK. Don't panic. Keep talking up your "New Generation" themes of youth and vision. Be the superhawk that you are. But you're in as good a position as any to tweak the Donald. In your case, it'll make you look bigger, not panicked. But use humor: "I love your hotels. I've lost some money at your casinos. But I don't like the idea of taxing imported goods the way you do. Most folks can't afford a 25 percent tax on their Toyota. You might be able to afford a car tax. We can't." The Cuban card is probably your best bet for bashing Obama, a proxy for Iran and everything else. People can't quite picture you with nukes, but they love your family's immigrant story and your denunciation of the Castros.

Rand Paul

You've lost your libertarian mojo. You want to be intervention-ish when it comes to ISIS. Everyone has co-opted your criminal justice reforms, which gave you some sex appeal. Your rationale of crusading for liberty seems faded. What makes you a better pick than Cruz or Carson? So just go back to what worked before for you and your dad. Legal raw milk, homeschooling, take a gun to church, legal dope—any of the purely libertarian positions you favor will remind this anti-government party why you're you.

Mike Huckabee

Are you going to be the nice Mike who won Iowa in 2008, or are you going to be slightly unhinged Mike of late? The sending-Israelis-to-the-ovens crack about Obama's Iran deal might have played with a limited base, but it's not making you look like a plausible nominee. You're probably the funniest guy there, so don't keep your good humor under a bushel. Also, don't let Trump steal all of your tough-on-trade-don't-cut-entitlements rhetoric. Get that back, even if it means saying nice things about the tycoon. Some mutual love with Carson will help both of you and expand your religious base.

Ted Cruz

You're in an interesting position. You're the most pro-Donald person on the stage, positioning yourself to be his beneficiary when/if he drops out. So praise him, yes, but without being obsequious, because no one likes a kiss-ass. Keep blasting the Republican establishment in Washington. But you've got to do something to lift yourself out of being mired as a protest candidate and into the realm of a plausible nominee. Your "they said Reagan was crazy" shtick is good, but everyone lavishes the Gipper with fawning praise. Try to talk about all of those court cases you won as Texas attorney general. Let them know you know how to move the courts and Congress.

Chris Christie

The patient is still breathing. Your super PAC—I mean the totally independent super PAC over which you have nooooo control—has more Fox News ads than those catheter or gold coin commercials. But the feeling that you've crossed the line from straight talk to being a jerk is not helping. The Bridgegate thing enforced every Jersey stereotype and every doubt about you. Even if we believe you knew nothing, the scandal still means your top staff pulled the wool over your eyes, which doesn't make you look so tough after all. You're best off just talking up your conservative fights on taxes and teachers unions. Don't apologize for hugging Obama during Superstorm Sandy, which seems to drive some Republicans nuts. You were helping Jersey. You're probably in the best position to attack Trump because you're the most like him stylistically. It'll be Godzilla vs. Mothra—a spectacle you cheer even if you know it'll destroy Tokyo. So chide Trump for advocating pork barrel spending on highways to Atlantic City. It brings him down. It makes you look like a governor. Chide him on entitlement spending, since that's one of your causes. Play up you were appointed to be U.S. attorney by George W. Bush. His stock isn't Reagan's, but in this party it doesn't hurt.

John Kasich

You're the "it girl," the dark horse getting all the attention. The media likes you because you seem moderate and authentic, their two favorite virtues. (Yes, the press loves moderates more than liberals.) But reporter love is not going to get you the nomination. You have to throw some red meat in there like, "I've been fighting the Clintons since 1992." Talk about your battles with the former president while you were in Congress. Your opponents are all talk but none of them took on the Arkansans when they were in the White House from the budget to impeachment. It's risky to play up your passage of tough voter ID laws in Ohio, but they are manna for this crowd, and it'll help boost your conservative bona fides. Above all you need to seem more commander-in-chief-ish. Flaky is OK for boutique candidates. Nominees have to feel solid. You're old enough to be eligible for Social Security, damn it. Stand up straight. Look as Romney-esque as you can. Sometimes there's such a thing as too authentic.