In one week, nine Republican candidates for president will stuff themselves onto an overcrowded stage next to one large, orange landmine. Fox News, hosting the event in Cleveland, is expecting to put on a great night of TV. Donald Trump, meanwhile, finally gets all his rivals in the same room after weeks of needling them one-by-one.
The question is, in the age of infotainment, will his challengers rise up against him or end up fish in a nationally-televised barrel?
“Imagine a NASCAR driver mentally preparing for a race knowing one of the drivers will be drunk,” an adviser to candidate and Ohio Gov. John Kasich told the Washington Post. “That’s what prepping for this debate is like.”
For his part, Trump has said he will forgo any debate prep, telling CNN on Thursday, “I’m no debater.”
But the perennial lesson of Richard Nixon’s sweaty, unflattering showdown against the effortlessly telegenic John Kennedy in 1960 is that these debates are about showmanship over scholarship. And that is one thing, perhaps the only thing, that Trump has under control.
“Onstage, you don't want to be the foil to Trump, coming off as scripted or a typical politician,” says Christine Matthews, a political consultant at Burning Glass Consulting based in Washington, D.C.
“What voters like about Trump is he is the anti-politician. He's happy to go off script, say outrageous things,” she adds. “What they hate about politicians is that they are scripted and say things that they don't mean or don't deliver.”
Several of the candidates declined to share their debate prep strategies with International Business Times, so it’s unclear how many Trump impersonators are running around behind the scenes, hurling insults at Rand Paul or Marco Rubio. But Matt Mackowiak, a conservative strategist at the Potomac Strategy Group, says they'd better get their practice in.
“Everyone will be smart to try to practice high-pressure interaction with someone playing Trump,” he says.
Tom Rath, a former senior adviser to presidential candidate Mitt Romney, says that Trump will be such a different animal onstage that the other candidates shouldn’t let the mogul goad them into a fight. No amount of practice will allow them to tangle with Trump live on-air.
"They will all come armed with pretty good one liners to diffuse a possible situation," Rath says. "But I think they make a mistake if they engage him."
“I wouldn’t waste the opportunity chasing after Trump,” he adds. “He’s gonna be good, he’s a television performer. He does this for a living.”
Whether or not the other GOPers should stand up to Trump may lie in where they stand in the polls. Frontrunners like Bush and Walker may not want to risk a failed encounter with Trump when they can simply outlast him in the long run. Smaller players, like former Texas Gov. Rick Perry or even Kasich, might as well take the risk and land a blow against their immaculately groomed enemy.
"My sense is that the risk in taking on Trump for Rubio, Walker and Bush is too high. There’s a chance Jeb will try and go after Trump and take control as party leader, but to me that’s very high risk for him," Mackowiak says.
"The single best beneficiary to Trump’s rise has been Jeb because it stunts the growth of everyone else," he adds. "He’s able to float above it with his huge bank account. If I had to guess, I'd say Perry would be most likely to take a shot."
As interesting as the question of how the Republicans will hand handle Trump is how he will handle himself. “A lot of the times, a bully will say things when he’s alone," Mackowiak says, "but when he’s in front of everyone else, he’s forced to back down.”
Rath also thinks that the candidates aren't in for as big a wallop as the media makes out.
“It will be much about Trump, but it can’t be all about Trump,” Rath said. “The debate tends to favor the challenger because just by walking on the stage you’re getting some credit going up against the champion.”
Could the debate actually end up being Trump's last stand? If he doesn't make a scene, will his novelty wear off?
“Trump has more pressure on this debate than anyone else. If he has a blowup this whole thing could come down very quickly,” Mackowiak says.
“The thing about Trump is he is predictably unpredictable,” says Matthews. “He's not particularly clever in his approach. He usually hurls a variation of these themes: you're dumb, you're untalented and unattractive or you're jealous."
"The candidates who successfully navigated middle school will have a leg up in this debate," she says.