Second Republican Debate: What to Watch Out For

Though the last Republican debate contained its share of entertainment – they did, after all, place an entertainer at center stage – it also provided much that was politically interesting.  What will tonight's debate, which is the second of the primary season, tell us about the candidates, the race for the Republican nomination, and the state of conservative politics more generally?  I'll be looking for ten things.

1. The policy-to-rhetoric ratio.

It's naive to expect substantive policy discussion at an event such as this, though the hope is that a greater focus on the issues, rather than the personalities involved, can supply the electorate with an early preview of what the race will be about moving forward.

2. Will Trump be attacked?

I'll be monitoring whether, and to what extent, Trump's rivals will go on the offensive against the current runaway leader in the polls.  In the last debate, save for one brief altercation with Rand Paul, Trump's primary rivals were the moderators.  This time around, there's a high likelihood that Bush, Fiorina, Paul, and Walker (and, very likely, others as well) will be more aggressive in seizing opportunities to take it to Trump.  But how hard will they strike?

3. Will Rubio shine again?

Many commentators agree that Rubio did really well last debate.  What is strange is that his performance didn't appear to give him the bump in the polls one would expect after winning the plaudits.  Will he put in another confident performance?  On the stage, he tends to come across as thoughtful, capable, and sincere.  His camp stresses they're playing the long game, but they'll need Rubio to put in another assured performance if he is to avoid Walker's fate, which seems to be connected to his underwhelming presence on screen.  They should like their chances if foreign policy issues take center stage, an area Rubio supporters see as one of his strengths.

4. Fiorina's impact.

By all accounts, Carly Fiorina was the star of last round's B-level debate.  How will she fare now that she is included on the prime time stage?  Fiorina comes in riding a wave of sympathetic support following what many people consider to be a dignified response to Trump's recent disparaging comments about her appearance.  Does she maintain this passive posture (embracing Trump's statement rather than resisting it), or does she tap into what enabled her surge in the first place (incisive, and at times biting, criticism of Trump and others)?

5. Will Paul go mainstream?

Rand Paul's campaign is really on the rocks.  During the last debate, he styled himself as a "different kind of conservative."  Will he continue to fashion himself as an outsider, or will he pivot toward blending in?  Whatever the answer to that is, all signs point to Paul continuing his abrasive approach in order to bolster his strong leader credentials.  Look for more Christie and Trump fireworks.

6. Carson as the anti-Trump.

We know all the ways in which Carson is like Trump: both are political outsiders; both are independently wealthy; both have been monumentally successful in their professional lives.  But in one major way Carson is the anti-Trump – Carson has been emphasizing the virtue of humility, whereas Trump has platformed on the binary of winners and losers, projecting himself as the shining exemplar of winning.  Trump can't credibly cast Carson as a loser, which is why his approach has been to downplay Carson's capacity as a "deal maker" and to call him, along with Bush, "low energy."  I'll be interested to see to what extent Carson projects his valuation of humility, which is an indirect criticism of Trump's approach.

7. Will Carson, Trump, and Fiorina – all political outsiders – use this debate as an opportunity to impress as political candidates?

Trump's strategy thus far has been nearly flawless.  Why change it?  One reason is that as the primaries get more serious and Americans increasingly tune in, there will be pressure on Trump and the other political outsiders to shore up their electability.  This is typically done by producing policy proposals or by wading into more detailed discussions of issues.  But who knows?  Perhaps this is the ultimate anti-establishment election cycle, in which candidates continue to climb the polls by being deliberately vague.

8. The Bush, Rubio, and Paul tax proposals.

Bush, Rubio, and Paul have unveiled tax plans.  Will they be discussed?  One of Romney's liabilities in 2012 was his inability to credibly deny that his plan would require raising taxes on the middle class.  Bush is promising tax cuts as well as four-percent growth.  Rubio is promising to expand the child credit and to abolish capital gains taxes altogether.  Paul is suggesting abolishing the payroll tax.  Will there be a substantive discussion about the relative merits of these plans?

9. Bush and Walker are promising more assertiveness, but will it be weird?

Bush is clearly struggling to overcome Trump's "low energy" charge.  Will he be more aggressive in order to counteract this criticism?  His campaign is hinting that we'll see a more assured, more assertive performance.  That doesn't seem to play into Bush's strengths.

Walker's early lead in Iowa has disappeared, and his campaign seems to be on the ropes.  The problem is, he's not a dynamic speaker, so will his attempt to be more forceful come across as contrived, or will he summon the necessary political energy to reclaim the support he needs?

10. Shutdown.

I am hoping to hear the candidates, Ted Cruz especially, discuss using a shutdown strategy as a means of defunding Planned Parenthood.  The perception is out there that Republicans will not be able to successfully shift the blame to Democrats in the event of a shutdown.  I'm not so sure: there is a new variable that, unlike past shutdown strategies, has a discernibly moral dimension.  There exists the possibility that, in the event of a shutdown, the airplay the videos exposing Planned Parenthood's barbaric practices would receive end up galvanizing support for the defunding effort.  I'd like to see candidates discuss the political merits of this particular shutdown strategy.

Berny Belvedere is a professor of philosophy and a writer based in Miami, FL.