With just two days until the first Republican presidential debate, all eyes are fixed on Donald Trump, the unpredictable, brash, billionaire real estate mogul who has found himself at the top of the polls – and sucking up nearly all of the 2016 oxygen in the process.
The never-shy, always-controversial Trump will almost certainly score the coveted center-stage slot on the Cleveland debate stage. And that puts his fellow candidates in a tough position: How do they deal with this boastful birther? Do they engage with him? Do they try to talk with him seriously and substantively? Do they shrug him off as some kind of carnival barker? Do they attack him? Do they avoid him altogether?
It’s a tricky balancing act; after all, he does have a quarter of the GOP electorate behind him, and the more serious candidates lagging in the polls will surely be wary of alienating Trump backers by dissing The Donald.
Ford O’Connell, a GOP strategist and another former McCain adviser, didn’t buy Trump’s talk. “He’s going to come and debate,” said O’Connell, adding that his M.O. is “undersell and overdeliver.”
Which strategy will pay off? O’Connell said it depends on the candidate. If you’re doing well in the polls – like former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush or Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker – “engaging Trump is not the smartest option. Stick to the issues and stay above the fray no matter what Trump does. No need to roll in the mud just yet.”
But if you’re a lower-tiered candidate, like Christie, Paul, or Huckabee, “Tussling with Trump could get you headlines, it could give you momentum. But Trump punches pretty mightily, so you have to be careful.”