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Debate Prep Is Tough When You Don't Know Who Will Be There

The first Republican debate will be Aug. 23. That is next week. All the candidates who have qualified (except possibly one of them) are working as hard as they can preparing for it. For many of them, the debate will be a do or die moment. A few great lines that are repeated all over the Internet a million times could turn a minor candidate into a media star. A flub and the show is over. For candidates like Vivek Ramaswamy and Gov. Doug Burgum (R-ND), the debate will be the first time millions of people have ever seen or heard them, and first impressions matter.

Normally debate prep is straightforward. Aides prepare briefing books on possible questions and possible answers. Questions about abortion, immigration, crime, transgender people on sports teams, and similar hot topics are foreseeable and answers (or evasions) can be memorized in advance.

However, the 800-pound orange gorilla in the studio (or not) is Donald Trump. How to answer questions about him? That is the question. Or the questions. And it is made much more complicated by two possibilities. What if he is on stage? What if he is not on stage? Most likely moderator Sean Hannity doesn't even know if Trump will show up. Probably Trump hasn't even decided yet. In reality, all the non-Trump candidates have to prepare for two scenarios: Trump is on stage and Trump is not on stage. How you answer the question: "Do you think Donald Trump is a criminal?" may vary depending on whether he is on stage a few feet from you or watching you on television 1,400 miles away in Palm Beach, FL. In the former case, an answer of "Yes" or "Hell, yes," or "Hell yes!!!!!" might get you some of what electrical engineers call "negative feedback" and in real time. In effect, all the candidates have to prepare for two possible debates and may not know which is the real one until they get on stage and look around.

Some candidates don't want to be surprised, so they are grasping at straws. Gov. Ron DeSantis (R-FL) has conducted polling asking people whether Trump should participate in the debate. Most think he should, but internal polls, even if leaked, aren't going to affect Trump's decision at all. Nevertheless, DeSantis is preparing for the case that Trump is present. There has been endless speculation in the media about the pros and cons of Trump appearing, but Trump often does things that don't seem logical. Blasting a judge who is going to oversee your criminal trial comes to mind, for example.

Mike Pence opened a mock debate session by... praying. Given his chances, that seems like an excellent call. He had various aides playing the roles of Ron DeSantis, Nikki Haley, Chris Christie, and Vivek Ramaswamy. Nobody stood in for Trump. Initially, Pence didn't consider the possibility that would be relevant, but now he is reconsidering. Who could play that role well? Donald Trump Jr. could, but he is probably not available. Chris Christie would be great, but he's not available either. Rats.

Ramaswamy is trying hard not to come over as rehearsed, so he is practicing very hard to look natural and... not rehearsed. When asked by reporters if he would target DeSantis, he said: "I'm not commenting on anyone specifically, but generally if somebody is defeating themselves, you let them do that on their own." That's a variant of "If your opponent is busy shooting himself in the foot, don't stop him."

DeSantis has debated while running for governor, so he has had some practice. When aides tried to help him with material, he waved them off saying he knew it all. The goal of rehearsals with him is to work on how to frame his issue. After all, you can oppose woke because it is bad for America, or it is bad for Florida, or it is bad for you personally. There are so many choices to be made. Of course, if Trump shows up and starts dumping on DeSantis for being a phony and an ingrate, explaining how he crushed Disney for being woke might not do the job. (V)

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