Republican presidential debates: This week's event promises rich entertainment, but is a nightmare in waiting for party grandees

Out of America: Donald Trump's surge to the top of the polls has turned the contest for a run at the White House on its head

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Oh, the travails of a Republican grandee in this mind-bending American political summer of 2015. First there’s Congress, where your party has comfortable majorities in both House and Senate, but where Republicans have been spending less time of late fighting President Obama than fighting each other. And then there’s the battle for next year’s presidential nomination.

On Thursday there is the first debate (or rather debates – more of which in a moment), among the 2016 candidates. For those of us with no dog in the fight, the event promises rich entertainment. For a party establishment focused on regaining the White House, however, it’s a nightmare in waiting.

The reason, of course, is Donald Trump, whose surge to the top of the polls has turned the contest on its head. And not only that: the more outrageously the world’s most bombastic property tycoon behaves, the better he seems to do, even in places such as New Hampshire, which in February will hold the first primary of the season and whose voters pride themselves on separating political wheat from chaff.

A protester is interviewed outside the airport as he awaits the arrival of Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump (Reuters)

No one thinks Trump can actually win the nomination. But some Republican analysts are starting to think he could get uncomfortably close, thus giving further ammunition to Democrats who point to Trump as Exhibit A of how the “crazies” (to use certified Republican grandee John McCain’s description of Trump supporters) have taken over the party. On Capitol Hill, meanwhile, that is already happening.

In the House, Speaker John Boehner, though a pragmatist by nature, adheres nonetheless to the principle that contentious legislation must be passed by Republican votes alone. That means he is effectively held hostage by rebellious Tea Partiers, one of whom has just tabled a floor resolution demanding that Boehner must go.

Almost certainly no vote will ever be held. All the while, the House does nothing, and criticism that Republicans are incapable of constructive government only grows. Last week, Boehner temporarily gave up the struggle to pass government funding and other important measures, and sent his unruly flock into recess until September. When it comes back, Republican politicians could find themselves on familiar tramlines, heading for another government shutdown for which, as always, they would be blamed.


The contagion is spreading to the Senate, where cooler heads are supposed to prevail. Instead Mitch McConnell, the majority leader, found himself branded a liar by another Republican, Senator Ted Cruz of Texas – another Tea Partier who, by no coincidence, is not only running for president, but is being eclipsed as darling of the far right by, yes, Donald Trump.

So what is a threatened candidate supposed to do? The answer is: draw attention to himself. That, plainly was the intention of Cruz when he went for McConnell. Ditto Mike Huckabee, former Arkansas governor and social conservative, another 2016 contender feeling Trump’s hot breath at the back of his neck. So Huckabee sounded off against Obama’s nuclear deal with Iran, claiming it would “march the Israelis to the doors of the oven”. Tasteless stuff – but using the Holocaust and Nazis to assail a political opponent is guaranteed to get attention. Which is exactly what Huckabee wanted.

And so back to the debates. At this stage of the election cycle, more than six months before the first vote that matters, name recognition is all important, especially when 17 candidates have entered the fray. Yes 17, not 16. You are forgiven for not noticing that Jim Gilmore, one-time governor of Virginia, entered the race last week – but maybe he too will say something scandalous to make a headline.

The format of proceedings in Cleveland, Ohio, this week only magnifies the need to make a splash quickly. A debate is by far the most effective, and cheapest, way for a candidate to become known by the wider public. But this time, sheer numbers have forced Fox News, which is organising the event, to hold not one but two debates. The first, in prime time, will be limited to the 10 top contenders, as measured by the polls. This is where Trump and his closest rivals (Jeb Bush, Scott Walker, and Marco Rubio) will do battle.

Republican campaign donations by billionaires David and Charles Koch led to protests in New York by critics who accuse them of skewing the political playing field (Getty)

The seven also-rans must content themselves with their own undercard debate at 5pm. So tightly are the candidates at the back end of the field bunched (all within a poll’s statistical margin of error) that this rather melancholy warm-up – akin to the third and fourth-place play-off in the World Cup – could feature such notables as Rick Santorum, runner-up to Mitt Romney for the GOP nomination in 2012, any one of a trio of eminent past and present governors: Rick Perry of Texas, Chris Christie of New Jersey, and Ohio’s John Kasich, as well as Carly Fiorina, ex-chief executive of HewlettPackard and the only woman in the field.

All eyes, though, are on the Donald. How will he perform? Will he be the preposterous self-promoter, shooting from the hip and lashing out at anyone who dares to criticise him? Or will we see Donald the improbable statesman, refusing to rise to the bait, calmly setting out policy positions? The second approach would do him more good in the long run; nothing would do more to turn Trump into a “serious” candidate than a dreary, wonkish debate. The former scenario, happily for us neutrals, seems more likely.

The Fox anchors who moderate the debate will do all they can to incite the candidates to attack each other, to generate fireworks and ratings. Trump’s adversaries, desperate to make an impact of their own, will surely oblige. As for the man himself, he always ensures he gives at least as good as he gets. And for all his disclaimers that he’s no politician and thus a novice at debating, Trump is probably the biggest television pro of the lot.

Debates at this early stage have little meaning. But Thursday’s could be the exception. As for those Republican grandees, they can draw consolation that these times too will surely pass.