Clear 34° Good Afternoon
Clear 34° Good Afternoon
OpinionColumnistsLane Filler

Five things to watch for in first GOP debates

The 2016 Republican presidential field is jam-packed. This

The 2016 Republican presidential field is jam-packed. This combo made from file photos shows 14 of the candidates. Top row, from left, former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush, retired neurosurgeon Ben Carson, New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, Texas U.S. Sen. Ted Cruz, former Hewlett-Packard CEO Carly Fiorina, South Carolina U.S. Sen. Lindsey Graham, and former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee. Bottom row, from left, Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal, former New York Gov. George Pataki, Kentucky U.S. Sen. Rand Paul, former Texas Gov. Rick Perry, Florida U.S. Sen. Marco Rubio, Pennsylvania former U.S. Sen. Rick Santorum, and real estate mogul Donald Trump. Photo Credit: AP

With just more than 65 weeks until the presidential election, the race just slipped into, oh, let's say second gear with the announcement of the lineup for the Republican debates. The main event, at 9 p.m., will feature Jeb Bush, Scott Walker, Ted Cruz, Rand Paul, Marco Rubio, Mike Huckabee, Ben Carson, Chris Christie, John Kasich and, er . . . Donald Trump!!!

You may notice I didn't add the prefixes like "current governor," "famed neurosurgeon" or "future 'Dancing with the Stars' contestant." That's because this is a column for political junkies, folks whose DVRing of Sunday morning news shows is tearing their families apart.

Addicts love "pregaming," the party that gets you loose and slobbering for the main event. Fox has that too, with a 5 p.m. debate for the seven candidates not in the top 10. I call them the junior varsity, not the second tier, because that's a hurtful expression, and when you say it, the tierorists win. The JV match will include Rick Perry, Carly Fiorina, Jim Gilmore, Bobby Jindal, George Pataki, Rick Santorum and Lindsey Graham.

So now that we know the players, what about the games? Here are five things to look for if you aren't wise enough to keep the presidential politics tuned out until three months before Election Day and snuggle up with something better: a loved one, let's say, or a rabid possum.

How Trumptacular will The Donald be? I don't think even he knows. There will be 10 candidates on the stage, and I don't remember Trump ever settling for 10 percent of available attention. But imagine if he played it statesmanish and polite and gave thoughtful answers, speaking only in his turn. Would it be the right strategy? I don't know. Is he capable of it? I don't know. That's why it's my top thing to look for.

How Trumptacular will the other nine candidates be? They're fighting for attention and credibility like starving hyenas battling over a Monster Thickburger. These are not shrinking violets. In the company of anyone other than Trump, Carson, Huckabee, Cruz, Paul and Christie would be considered world-class controversy generators. So which of them, if not all, will take the tone of his rhetoric up a DEFCON level or three to make a splash?

Will any participant in the junior varsity debate earn a move to the big show next time? With seven contestants splitting one hour, each will actually have less time than the big 10. The dimmer spotlight could mean a more substantive discussion of policy and philosophy. But the desperation from not making the main stage could lead to frenetic World Wrestling Entertainment battle-royale-style bids for attention, which hopefully would include colorful unitards and capes.

Who's the new "he ain't gonna be president, but we kinda love him" candidate? I say "he" because I'm willing to bet as much as $1 bazillion that Fiorina is not the new Ron Paul. But I wonder whether anyone in this lineup can popularize ideas or create an outsider wave that influences the evolution of the party as Paul did. Carson comes to mind, and Huckabee and Santorum, who've built respectable primary constituencies before. Paul's son, Rand, held some of the same populist promise, but that's faded.

Ratings: How much do people care this early? How much pop will Trump add to the event? We know the media and the addicts need their fix, and Thursday night for them will be a big Republican party.

But with 460 shopping days until election time, the question is whether normal folks are ready to start browsing for the perfect president.