Fox News GOP Debate: Get Ready for Donald Trump's New Reality Show

Donald Trump - H 2015
AP Images

Donald Trump - H 2015

No stranger to primetime, Trump's ego drama could easily make Thursday's Fox News primary debate the most watched in TV history.

There will be ten Republican presidential candidates on the stage for first pre-primary GOP debate, but for the millions of viewers expected to tune into the two-hour rhetorical cage match on Fox News, it’s all about Donald Trump.

The real estate developer turned TV personality has stunned and befuddled the GOP establishment, which continues to treat him like the guy who crashed their sister’s wedding — and his public loves him for it.

Trump’s popularity clearly reflects a deep contempt for contemporary politics generally, where every statement is carefully scripted and vetted by a team of nervous consultants. No stranger to the world of reality TV, Trump gives the American public something it seems to crave: Outrageousness mixed with authenticity.

As his favorability ratings continue to rise in national polls, Trump’s ego drama could easily make the Fox News debate the most watched primary debate in television history — as viewers tune in expecting the unexpected.

"None of the candidates will want to take Mr. Trump head-on because he doesn’t play within the margins of traditional political comportment," wrote former Reagan speech writer Peggy Noonan in her Wall Street Journal column. "He’s a squid: poke him and get ink all over you."

Trump has primly called for "civility" in Thursday night’s exchanges with his rivals. "I am going to keep it on a high level," Trump told reporters this week. "I have a lot of respect for them."

But Trump is popular for being a counter puncher. And with nine other guys on stage likely to throw a lot of blows his way, if he holds back he will surely disappoint his audience. After all, that’s what the folks in the seats have paid to see.

The front-runner will be flanked on stage by the other two leaders in the polls, former Florida GovJeb Bush and Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker. (They’re the only three of the ten with double figure approval numbers, though Trump leads Bush by 10 points and Walker by 12; the rest of the field is in single digits.)

Of the three leaders, Bush is the one with the most to lose. In the limited time available, he needs to find a way to convince conservative primary voters that he has something to offer them. At the same time, he needs to reassure the GOP establishment that he has a way to do that without seeming to flip and flop.

Walker actually has the conservative street cred, which is why he’s a favorite of the Koch brothers and their set, but he has no national profile and has to find a way to succinctly introduce himself to the debate’s audience. As Wisconsin’s governor, he has slashed taxes, broken the public employee unions and abolished tenure for university professors. That’s red meat to a certain sort of conservative, but most of the likely viewers for tonight’s debate may be inclined to dismiss him as overly wonky. (A minister’s son and devout fundamentalist Christian, Walker may look for ways to appeal to the Republicans’ evangelical constituency.)

The rest of the fielded — Mike Huckabee, Ben CarsonTed Cruz, Marco Rubio, Rand Paul, Chris Christie and John Kasich— will be looking for ways to break out and into the light of public interest.

Look for Cruz, who hopes to inherit Trump’s voters, if the developer drops out, to hang back from any attack on Trump. Depending on who he is when the debate begins, Carson will either charm with an appealing common sense intelligence or say ridiculous things that make viewers shake their heads. (He’s done both on the campaign trial so far.)

Huckabee seems set on saying something — anything, actually — more outrageous than Trump, which isn’t much of a strategy. Rubio, who favors comprehensive immigration reform, may come in for a bit of battering from Trump and the field. Paul will be looking to broaden his libertarian appeal, but his foreign policy views put him way out of sync with Republican primary voters.

Christie, who is still ridiculed by the GOP for his famous Obama bro-hug after Hurricane Sandy, will have to prove that he’s true to the principals of the party.

Before Thursday’s main event, the balance of the Republican field — former Texas governor Rick Perry, Louisiana governor Bobby Jindal, former HP CEO Carly Fiorina, Sen. Lindsey Graham, former New York governor George Pataki and one-time Virginia governor Jim Gilmore — will debate, though it’s not clear who will be watching. All are in even lower single digit positions than the seven in the main event, and will be looking for a way to leap frog into the top tier. It’s hard to get very far when your candidacy has been consigned to the kiddie table.

That brings up the unprecedented role of Fox News in structuring this event. Essentially, the Republican Party ceded the whole thing to Roger Ailes, who devised this format and decided who would get to participate.

Some government wonks and journalists have assailed the move as a power grab by a TV mogul. This week’s polls, though, show that likely primary voters are perfectly happy to have the network run things.

"It’s basically up to old Roger Ailes and his own highly subjective determination of which polls will produce the greatest television rankings," Salon's politics and media correspondent Jim Newell wrote in a column for the site. He added: "Any television executive with a sense of decency might feel guilty about accepting such an extraordinary role in determining which candidate gets a presidential nomination. Roger Ailes is not one of them."

Fox has assigned the job of managing a ten-man debate to Bret Brier, Megyn Kelly and Chris Wallace.

"Candidates will rely on the moderator," noted Noonan. "The moderator may amuse himself by stepping back and watching the fun."

Will that happen tonight? Stay tuned.

Fox released the following network schedule for today’s events:

2-3 p.m. PT – The bottom seven candidates will engage in a pre-debate live from Quicken Loans Arena in Cleveland, Ohio.

3-4 p.m. PT – Special report with Bret Baier.

4-5 p.m. PT – On the Record with Greta Van Susteren. 5-5:50 p.m. PT – The O’Reilly Factor.

5:50-8 p.m. PT – The top ten Republican presidential candidates debate debate live from Cleveland.

8 p.m.-9 p.m. PT – The Kelly File, live from Cleveland. 9-10p p.m. PT – Hannity, live from Cleveland.