How GOP candidates can stay alive for debate #2

Story highlights

  • Ed Lee: For GOP debaters, this face-off is war. Members of the 3 groups -- governor, tea party, religious right -- each want to pull ahead of pack
  • Lee: Trump must play up job creation; Bush, continue to show foreign policy chops; Christie overcome temper; Cruz tout political acumen

Ed Lee is the senior director of debate in the Barkley Forum Center for Debate Education at Emory University, where he has been a debate coach since 2004 and has received national awards for his work. The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of the author.

(CNN)On Thursday, the major Republican candidates will meet in their first debate, held on a battleground stage in the battleground state of Ohio.

The combatants? We can break them down into three groups: the established governors, the tea party, and the religious right.
Carl von Clausewitz, a Prussian general and military strategist, argued that war is the continuation of politics by other means, and the Republican candidates who understand the upcoming debate as this kind of war are more likely to win the rhetorical battle.
    Ed Lee
    The parameters are clear: Polling data will determine who participates in future debates, and those future debaters will be better able to successfully jockey for donations, votes and media exposure.
    While many people have justifiably criticized the use of polling data to determine who will debate, Lindsey Graham's current low single-digit status in the Republican race (and exclusion from tonight's first-tier debate) serves as a cautionary tale. Candidates, like him, who criticize the selection process spend precious media time on an issue they do not have the power to change.
    Why is this so important? If candidates fail to focus energy on sustaining and improving their polling numbers, they risk political death, when staying alive and getting to the next debate is the most important task.
    The debaters must distinguish themselves from their competition. But to thrive, they must resist the urge to engage everyone and all issues.
    Candidates should know which donors and voters they can easily convert: the voters and financial backers who support candidates most similar to themselves.
    Right now, donors and voters are each making decisions among a small subgroup of candidates. For example, the establishment voters are deciding whether or not to bail on Jeb Bush. Tea party voters are deciding between Donald Trump, Marco Rubio, Rand Paul and Ted Cruz. The religious right is considering Rick Santorum, Ben Carson and Mike Huckabee.
    It goes without saying that the candidates included in this first debate will want to demonstrate a command of the issues. But here are some other key things each should be thinking about when he is debating.

    Established governors

    Sun Tsu's "Art of War" suggests that one can peacefully recruit people to a cause by "engaging people with what they want" and "confirming their projections." The candidates most associated with their roles as governor -- Jeb Bush, Chris Christie, John Kasich and Scott Walker -- are best positioned to make use of this and give the people what they want by projecting a presidential persona. But what about Mike Huckabee? True, he was a successful governor of Arkansas, but at this juncture, he is arguably more widely seen as a standard bearer for the Christian right (and that's how we'll frame him here), and his main competitor for that vote is Ben Carson.
    Emotions drive most of our decisions. We want presidents to sound, look and be presidential. We want to personally connect with our leader. We want someone who will work tirelessly yet will take time off to have a beer with us. The president needs to be smart but not pretentious. In this aspect, the governors have an advantage over the other candidates; they already negotiate these lofty and, at times, incompatible expectations in their home states.
    Jeb Bush is in the best position. His family is a political dynasty, which makes it relatively easy for the public to envision Bush as president. At this stage of the race, he simply needs to demonstrate he can be engaging and act presidential in order to sustain his support. People are overreacting to a few instances where he seemed to falter at this week's New Hampshire forum. He demonstrated a command of foreign policy and economic issues that seemed lacking in some other candidates.
    Scott Walker, if elected, would be the first United States president without a college degree since Harry S. Truman. While Walker has shown his political strength by winning numerous battles in Wisconsin, a 2013 Gallup poll indicates that 70% of Americans believe that a college education is "very important."
    His lack of an academic degree will eventually become part of the conversation about his candidacy. Walker should make an effort to get in front of this issue and use the debates to demonstrate his intelligence, to show that a college degree is not necessary for him create a robust economy and effective foreign policy. Walker should tout his role in eliminating Wisconsin's $3.6 billion shortfall. He should also take advantage of opportunities to debate about ISIS or the Iran nuclear deal.
    Chris Christie needs to overcome his temper. Most Americans are not looking for a president with anger management issues. The New Jersey governor must keep in mind that at this point, he is directly competing with three skilled communicators. Bush, Walker and Kasich come across as poised and reasonable. A collegial debate over the issues will help address any voter concerns that Christie lacks the demeanor of a diplomat.
    John Kasich is only a recent entry into the race and is unknown to many voters. He'll need to overcome this. As the governor of Ohio, he has proven that he is a winner in a must-win state for the Republican Party. Kasich needs to use the debate to introduce himself to voters and needs to pounce when Bush, Christie, or Walker stumble. Kasich's history as a budget and deficit hawk on the House Budget Committee gives him the ammunition he needs to argue that he is the best candidate to stabilize the economy.
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    All four of these governors need to avoid the Trump trap. They will not benefit from engaging Donald Trump, even if the opportunity presents itself. Rick Perry's raging attacks on Trump have done little to boost his polling numbers. Only a tea partier can take down Trump. That includes Trump himself.
    Trump knows he should troll and get the other candidates upset. Bush, Christie, Kasich and Walker need to avoid being trolled and display the demeanor of executives skilled at building coalitions that can improve communities.

    The tea partiers

    The instructions printed on U.S. rocket launchers advise "Aim towards the Enemy." With Trump's success in wooing the tea party faithful, he is the immediate enemy of Cruz, Rubio and Paul. They should use the debates to aim and fire at will.
    Donald Trump leads the polls as the star of the primary election season. He will stand center stage on Thursday with 18% of GOP primary voters supporting him. Many commentators consider Trump's lead a soft 18%, however, and argue that Republicans will eventually realize that Trump is unelectable.
    Trump needs to use the debate to make an important pivot: making himself a credible, viable long-term candidate. Trump's calling card needs to be jobs. The argument that he is a proven job creator, unlike the professional politicians he is competing against, will resonate with many of the viewers. So far, he's built his political house on a foundation of attacks on immigrants, veterans and women, a footing not built to last.
    Ted Cruz, an accomplished debater at Princeton, should perform well. He seems best positioned to take advantage of a Trump stumble. Cruz has demonstrated that he will go to great lengths to prove his tea party allegiance, including shutting down the government. Unlike the governors, he sees no need for coalition-building or trying to preserve the political center of the party.
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    As he alluded to in his campaign kick-off speech, Cruz sees millions of energized people of faith and tea partiers paving his way to the White House. But to get there, he first needs to dethrone Trump and consolidate tea party support. During the debate, Cruz should contrast his political acumen with Trump's business success and argue that political acumen is preferable.
    Marco Rubio is in a tough spot. He is not a firebrand like Trump and Cruz. He also lacks the executive experience and record of the established governors. Rubio is a gifted speaker and will do well in the debate, but he will struggle to garner tea party support if Trump and Cruz perform well. He will struggle to stand out in a crowded field of tea party candidates. Rubio needs to be bold and aggressive and challenge Trump and Cruz on their national electability. He can justifiably argue that he is the only tea party candidate to win a swing state.
    Rand Paul's performance will be the most interesting to watch from an argument perspective. Unlike Rubio, who will struggle to contrast himself with other tea party candidates, Paul can distinguish himself by emphasizing his support for libertarian policy reforms, such as legalizing marijuana, eliminating asset forfeiture, restoring voting rights for nonviolent felons and reducing the U.S. global military presence. A policy-focused performance will help him tremendously.
    The question for Cruz, Rubio and Paul: Can they trump Trump and still look presidential for the non-tea party voters?

    Religious right

    Former Secretary of State Colin Powell, a retired four-star general in the U.S. Army, once advised, "Always focus on the front windshield and not the rearview mirror." While the religious right candidates are principled cultural warriors battling over social issues and cultural terrain, they are pursuing a shrinking faction of single-issue voters. They focus on the rearview mirror of gays and guns, while the majority of the electorate wants their politicians looking forward at jobs and justice.
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    Mike Huckabee is a brilliant orator and gifted storyteller. Unfortunately, his focus on Christian voters leaves no margin for error and will not change the dynamics of the race. Like Rick Santorum during the 2011-2012 debate cycle, Huckabee may be able to parlay an excellent debate performance into a few primary wins, but a few wins in the South is his ceiling unless he is willing to make economic populism a focal point of the debate. Huckabee's current fixation with the Iran nuclear deal leaves little time for economic populism.
    Ben Carson has an amazing life story. He is a world-renowned neurosurgeon from rural Georgia made famous for being the first to successfully separate conjoined twins who were joined at the head. As the other non-politician in the race, Carson is the candidate hurt most by Trump's ascendance: Beyond his appeal to the Christian right, his appeal is primarily with voters disaffected with professional politicians. But that is the surging Trump's base.
    Carson is also vying for the Christian vote, with two formidable adversaries: Huckabee and Santorum. He desperately needs a strong debate performance to prevent his candidacy from coming to an abrupt end. Carson should embrace former President Ronald Reagan's vision of America as that shining city on a hill that can once again provide opportunity to all and create a peaceful global order. It is a vision that fits well with his life story, and honoring Reagan will improve his brand with the party faithful.
    U.S. Army Gen. George S. Patton commanded his soldiers to "do your damnedest in an ostentatious manner all the time." The debate on August 6 is an opportunity for each of 10 Republican candidates to do their damnedest to convince Americans that he is ready to be the nation's 45th president.
    With so many talented and gifted orators on stage, it will indeed take an ostentatious performance to win the debate war.