The first GOP presidential debate: What every candidate has to accomplish

Perry needs to get to the big boy table. Bush needs to stanch the bleeding. And Trump needs to prove he's more than hot air.

Take note, candidates.
(Image credit: Illustration by Sarah Eberspacher | Photos courtesy Getty Images)

This evening, at 5 p.m., Fox News will host a presidential debate for the Republican candidates who are currently polling outside the top 10. Then, at 9 p.m., the primetime debate will begin, featuring the big names like Jeb Bush, Marco Rubio, and, yes, Donald Trump.

Each one of these many, many candidates has paid advisers. All but one team will be considered losers in less than a year's time. So here's some advice you can't buy with money.

The 5 p.m. debate

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Rick Perry: Trust that you won't always be stuck at the kid's table. Come up with one good quip about your 2012 "Oops" moment. Promise to make America more like Texas, a place where middle class families can thrive. Let people know you are running the wonkiest campaign — because you are. Project confidence that you will soon leapfrog John Kasich, Ben Carson, and others in the 9 p.m. slot.

Rick Santorum: Do not under any circumstances project your displeasure with the indignity of being at the secondary debate, just because you were the man chosen by history and Republican voters to give Mitt Romney a run for his money in 2012. Talk about the GOP connecting with working families again. Talk about your family, seriously. Invite Dan Savage to dinner. Anything to humanize yourself. Even though I've savaged some of your politics in the past, you are actually a helluva lot more likable than a lot of these idiots.

Everyone else: Don't destroy your candidacy by taking a huge gamble to get into the big boys' debate. Everyone in political media knows that the bottom half of the primetime debate got there accidentally, or because the timing of their announcement gave them a little boost ahead of this week. You might even have an advantage in this forum. There's enough media to cover everyone, and because you share the debate stage with fewer candidates, you will likely get more attention. When you are already on the junior varsity stage, an obvious grab for attention risks making you looks like a clown. Let the primetimers make mistakes.

The 9 p.m. debate

Mike Huckabee: You're not going to get a lot of speaking time. So let's see a return of your quick wit. If you want loyalty from Evangelical voters who are drifting toward Marco Rubio, remind them how unreliable the GOP elite really is. Evangelicals are not in a trusting mood. Offer your candidacy as their whip.

Rand Paul: Stop cringing, man. You will never win over your dedicated haters. Take one page from your father, and do what no one expects at a candidates debate: Debate something. In fact, you should be attacking Bush. Not Jeb, though — attack his brother. Bait other candidates into defending an unpopular president, and you can show yourself as a new, different kind of Republican.

Scott Walker: First, work on those pronunciations of foreign leaders, buddy. If I were you, I'd dismiss all the senators as yappers, and instead start a fight with Bush about your respective gubernatorial records. Note that your state has mostly recovered economically, while Bush's Florida turned out to be a time-bomb for real-estate values.

Marco Rubio: Everyone knows you are an electrifying speaker when giving a speech. You have to find a way to translate that energy onto a stage shared with nine other people. If you are driven into a direct conflict with Scott Walker over his executive experience, applaud his work. Then start running circles around him on foreign policy issues. He'll get lost.

Donald Trump: Take advantage of media expectations that you will be all hot air. If you support your lacerating attacks on other candidates with even just a handful of factual statements, or any sign that you really focused for even two whole minutes on a sheet of research about your opponents, you will magnify all the trends that are going your way. People will be blown away.

Ben Carson: Like Trump, your speech patterns, cadence, and presentation are themselves evidence that you are not from the political class. But you are also Trump's opposite. Trump is ego. You have equipoise. Even if Trump has $10 billion in net worth, your record as a brain surgeon is the most impressive resume on the stage. If you out-study Trump on the issues, you will begin collecting the "anti-politics" poll numbers that currently belong to him.

Chris Christie: I don't know, man. Good luck. You can't out-mean Donald Trump, and it's deadly to you if you let him out-mean you. Pray that John Kasich flames out tonight.

John Kasich: You have a distinctive personality that no one will like. Don't show it. Just talk about Ohio's rebound. And pray that Christie flames out tonight.

Ted Cruz: You and I both know your card is that the Republicans are not willing to fight. But you also should have figured out by now that your historic mission is to put Donald Trump back in his place. He's a Clinton-donating charlatan, a johnny-come-lately, a tax-loving cronyist — and you know it. If he presents you the opportunity, bury him. Any other reaction to him reveals your fear, which is death to your brand.

Jeb Bush: Everyone knows you are a competent establishment guy. Show them you are a social conservative. But prepare for a heat-seeking snark missile from Mike Huckabee for sitting on the board of a philanthropy that gave millions to Planned Parenthood. Just stop any more bleeding of your support and don't give any media organization or mega-donor a reason to start polling Mitt Romney's name.

Good luck!

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Michael Brendan Dougherty

Michael Brendan Dougherty is senior correspondent at He is the founder and editor of The Slurve, a newsletter about baseball. His work has appeared in The New York Times Magazine, ESPN Magazine, Slate and The American Conservative.