Editor's Note: former Texas Governor Rick Perry, although invited to participate in the earlier of the two debates to be held at the Ronald Reagan Library on 16 September, suspended his presidential campaign after having been so invited.
It will take up the better part of five hours, beginning at 6 PM Eastern/3 o'clock in the afternoon Pacific (2200 GMT for the benefit of our site's readers outside of North America). Except for a 15 minute "intermission" at 7:45 Eastern (to allow the 5 candidates participating in the earlier debate to leave the stage, their places to be taken by the 11 who will be debating- for three of those five hours- during the Main Event), those who choose to watch these debates 'live' on CNN will be presented with yet another opportunity to judge the serious contenders for the 2016 Republican presidential nomination and their various and sundry policy positions and personal takes on the many issues of the day.
As I myself first opined back on 6 August of this year, these debates on the Republican side are just as much a part of a "winnowing in" process as will the earliest GOP Caucuses and Primaries truly begin the "winnowing out" of GOP candidates beginning next February. I remain rather skeptical of the notion that the 2016 Republican National Convention will be at all deadlocked- or, for that matter, even brokered: unless and until I see otherwise, I still think that the number of GOP presidential contenders will, at some point early in the process (if not even before the First in the Nation Caucuses in Iowa and the First in the Nation Presidential Primary in New Hampshire, at least not all that long after each of these first-step Delegate Selection events), dwindle and that, by mid-March, there will remain a mere relative handful of viable contenders for the Grand Old Party's presidential nomination; and it will be out of these last, obviously, that the eventual Republican Standard-bearer will emerge.
Yet just who these "viable contenders"- out of the nearly dozen and half current contenders- will actually be is not yet knowable: all we can now know is that this evening's proceedings will go no little way towards determining the ultimate answer to that very question.
But, first, let us take a quick look back and recall what came out of the last Republican presidential debates held on that same 6 August.
Please know, gentle reader, that- as is the case with my Commentaries on the Major Party National Conventions and the later Presidential (and Vice-Presidential) Debates every four years- my purpose here is not to determine which policies promoted by various and sundry candidates might be good or bad/right or wrong; nor is it even my intention to discern which statements made by a given candidate might be true or false- or, perhaps, somewhere in between. My sole interest, as regards these pre-Caucus/Primary (well before the Conventions themselves) debates, is to well look at the political ramifications of a candidate's performance therein-- that is: my discerning how a candidate's own words and actions, while on the debate stage, might affect- either for good or for ill- his or her campaign's own electoral efficacy.
Coming out of those first debates in Cleveland (in the very arena in which, a little less than a year from now as I type this, the Republican Party's National Convention will nominate- and thereafter hail- that Party's 2016 Standard-Bearer), one could immediately discern the following:
The "winner" of the Main Event in Cleveland that evening was Florida Senator Marco Rubio: he ever kept on point (as well as within the time constraints) and, thereby, stated his own case succinctly. The only 'hiccup' in his performance was when he made a statement to the effect that, while God has blessed America, He had also blessed the Republican Party with so many worthy presidential contenders "while the Democrats can't even find one"-- this last coming perilously close to that line which Herbert Agar, in describing the outcome of a Presidential Election little more than a half century ago now, defined as that between finding the opposition merely "mistaken" as opposed to also "wicked". Rubio's comment may well have provided "raw meat" to much of the Republican base, but it will not attract much of the 'bell curve of the electorate' come a General Election: thus, he got marked down at least a peg for that one.
Meanwhile, the "loser" of the same Main Event was Kentucky Senator Rand Paul: fellow contender Donald Trump said it best-- no, Senator Paul did not have a good night! His attempt- virtually alone among those on that stage that evening- to jump on Trump certainly backfired and his back and forth with New Jersey Governor Chris Christie did little to protect the Bill of Rights from further 'War on Terror' encroachment, instead putting the spotlight on a candidate seemingly unprepared to well advance beyond his own most simple libertarian sentiments. Paul's rather awkward closing- that he is "a different kind of Republican" (without much real explanation as to why [leaving the impression that most within the Grand Old Party might merely have nodded assent to this while also thinking 'Yeah, only not my kind!'])- was itself altogether lame.
A secondary "winner" ("first runner-up", if you will) in that same debate was Ohio Governor John Kasich who well positioned himself as the potential champion of the more moderate (economic, but not necessarily sociocultural) conservative voter (albeit, thereby, also becoming the champion of those the more hard-core, strident conservatives to his Right would decry as 'R I N O' [Republican In Name Only]). On the other side of the coin, the secondary "loser" in this debate was Governor Scott Walker whose attacks on Democratic Party presidential contender Hillary Clinton were as altogether lame as Senator Paul's "swings and misses" already described above and who otherwise appeared as if he had crammed for this debate solely by quickly perusing a copy of 'REPUBLICAN DEBATING for Dummies'' given the manner in which he seemed to, at best, simply parrot the main Republican political themes of the day without adding all that much of his own to the mix.
Donald Trump was not much harmed, nor was he at all fazed, by his testy back-and-forth with moderator Megyn Kelly of FOX News over his comments and apparent attitudes about women; nor was he hurt all that much by his being, at the time, the only one among all the GOP contenders refusing- at the time- to absolutely rule out a potential Independent run for President. Trump is just about his own faction/wing (one with one foot within the Republican Party, the other without it) apart from all the other factions and wings within the GOP I myself had touched upon back on 2 July of this year and many- if not most- of his own supporters care not one wit about the Republican Party any more than they might also care about the Democrats (if those within much of the GOP hierarchy truly think they might have, somehow, actually gained something by Trump's signing the so-called 'Pledge' [to support the eventual Republican presidential nominee] recently, they are only fooling themselves). Truth be told, Trump gained little- but also lost little- with his overbearing performance in Cleveland, if only because it was just the sort of performance one would have expected from him (like him or not).
Many were looking for former Florida Governor Jeb Bush hitting the proverbial "home run" as the presumed best alternative to Trump as a potential Republican President but the best known among the ABT ('Anyone But Trump') crowd of contenders started off much too slowly. He did come off better as the debate progressed yet there lingered, well after this debate, the rather nagging question as to why he was even running for President in the first place (other than that his last name happens to be 'Bush'- a surname that, meanwhile, appears nowhere on his campaign's signage which has, instead, opted for 'Jeb!'). Although he, in the end, didn't really hurt himself, the truth is that, in a debate he very well could have "won", Jeb Bush ended up seemingly well behind his fellow Floridian, Senator Rubio.
For the most part, all the other candidates on that stage during the Main Event in Cleveland more or less "treaded water"- neither losing much, nor gaining all that much. Dr. Ben Carson decried his own not being much called upon by the moderators, but he might well have gained mostly by his not having had to speak all that much; New Jersey Governor Chris Christie's verbal sparring with Senator Paul, already noted above, did not much advance his own cause (his 'Tell It Like It Is' style- not all that evident really, except during his exchange with Paul- paled in comparison with Trump's own bombast and bluster throughout and, with that Christie 'Jerseytude' feistiness so trumped by Trump himself, Christie himself came off as very much deflated). Meanwhile, the others- Texas Senator Ted Cruz and Arkansas Governor Mike Huckabee- pretty much remained "running in place", continuing to appeal to the same supporters they each have appealed to since announcing their respective candidacies-- but that was about it.
Prior to the Main Event in Cleveland was held, on the same stage, what has- however unfortunately- come to be called the "Children's Table" debate (a reference to the practice, common in many American households, of- during important family gatherings [on holidays, both secular and religious, where not both (such as Thanksgiving)]- seating the younger children [usually those yet to have reached Adolescence] separately from the adults at the main table at which dinner is served), the debate in which those who had not made the cut (National poll-wise) for the Main Event took part. Here, the "winner" was Carly Fiorina whose erudition in presenting her own case rivaled that of Senator Rubio in the Main Event (as a result of which she has now muscled her way into the Main Event this very evening); meanwhile, the "loser" here was former Texas Governor Rick Perry who, while he did not stumble in the manner in which he (in)famously did four years ago now, violated the dictum 'When running for office, never promote one of your opponents' when he himself stated he preferred Carly Fiorina over Hillary Clinton.
A secondary "loser" was outgoing Louisiana Governor Bobby Jindal who came off as most out of his element within even what can be best described as (if only to here avoid the more debasing "Children's Table" moniker) this Bantamweight division of the Grand Old Party. Apart from this, former New York Governor George Pataki had virtually conceded the more moderate 'RINO' wing to Governor Kasich simply by not being in the Main Event itself in the first place, while others at this lesser event- notably, South Carolina Senator Lindsey Graham and former Pennsylvania Senator Rick Santorum- simply "ran in place", seemingly neither gaining nor losing as a result of their own performances therein-- though the question still begged, as much after this earlier debate in Cleveland as before, as to why former Virginia Governor Jim Gilmore had even bothered running for President in the first place (Gilmore did not even meet the minimum polling requirements to participate in tonight's earlier debate!)
All of the foregoing, of course, has to now be taken into account going into tonight's debates, for we now have a much better idea- based on what we saw back on 6 August- as to just what each Republican presidential contender must do to better their relative positions as compared to their fellow GOP candidates.
As for the earlier "Bantamweight" debate this evening, someone within this Graham/Jindal/Pataki/Perry/Santorum pack has to start breaking out (and soon!) in order to, thereby, move up into the Big Time. The longer a presidential contender stays within what is, after all, but the bottom third of the GOP presidential nomination field, the even longer an ever more failing campaign for the Presidency will thereafter seem.
Meanwhile, within the "Heavyweight" division (now the 'Top 11' on the Republican presidential hopeful 'Hit Parade'), people on the main stage this evening simply have to start taking more than few "swings" at Donald Trump- not to also mention "landing" their "punches" (unlike a "flailing" Senator Paul last month)- if any of them might want to have any real hope of catching up to, where not also overtaking, him in the polls as Fall becomes Winter later on this calendar year. Trump knows they're gunning for him, of course, and it will be most interesting to see how those candidates other than Trump interact with each other even as they themselves engage "the Donald"-- and he them.
In this regard, it will be most interesting to see how Carly Fiorina- newcomer to the Main Event- will handle all this. Will Senator Rubio and/or Governor Kasich try their respective utmosts to stay above the fray?-- or will either of them, if not both, be sucked into the maelstrom that is a battle of words and wits with Donald Trump? Will Senator Cruz and Governor Huckabee much more emerge (compared to how they appeared last time round)? Will we actually learn what Dr. Carson really thinks about the issues of the day (instead of quasi-religious platitudes about how doing surgery on the human brain might give him at least somewhat special insight into what God Himself might require of the Human Mind: great philosophical discussion fodder but not of much use when dealing with issues of both foreign and domestic policy)? Can Governor Kasich continue to portray himself the Republican presidential candidate most capable of appealing to the "sensible center"? And will Governor Jeb Bush come out fighting this time, thereby giving us real insight into why he- above all others- should be considered the alternative to Trump?
The answers to all the above is what we all should be pondering as the better part of this five-hour CNN political extravaganza this evening finally winds down as 11 o'clock approaches on the East Coast.