With 17 declared candidates, the participants for the 9 p.m. EDT main event were drawn from those who finished in the top 10 in five recent polls. The real drama this week was which two out of four, Chris Christie, John Kasich, Rick Perry or Rick Santorum, would make the cut into the top 10.
Perry did not. Neither did Santorum. The final top 10 include Donald Trump, Jeb Bush, Scott Walker, Mike Huckabee, Ben Carson, Ted Cruz, Marco Rubio, Rand Paul, Christie and Kasich.
The remaining seven candidates, Perry, Santorum, Bobby Jindal, Carly Fiorina, Lindsey Graham, George Pataki and Jim Gilmore, will appear earlier that night at 5 p.m. in their own debate. While there has been much consternation and commentary on how a debate with this large number of candidates will work, a very similar debate from last cycle can give us insight.
Fox News and Google presented the 5th debate in the last cycle on September 22, 2011. It featured nine candidates and was moderated by Brett Baier, Megyn Kelly and Chris Wallace. It was the largest debate in the primary process. While the time per candidate was limited due to the number of participants, there was enough time for the candidates to provide new ideas and contrasts to one another.
At a debate this size, the participants' goals are to not make mistakes; to not forget one of their points; to not ignore others' attacks; and to not ramble without making a point. The baseline goal: don't do something stupid.
While Jeb Bush is reported to have been under intense debate prep, Donald Trump, the current frontrunner in the polls, is not. Roger Stone, an advisor to Trump, told The Daily Caller that Trump is "unscripted. Un-coached. Un-handled. And no one puts words in his mouth."
Possibly these approaches are a result of the two candidates' recent experiences. Bush, as recently as this week, has acknowledged that he "misspoke" during an answer, while Trump has doubled down when challenged about his answers.
The candidate in the last primary process who was able to have real wins in the debates was former Speaker Newt Gingrich (full disclosure: he is my dad). Debate prep for him included grabbing a can of Diet Coke and swapping jokes with staff. Also known for being unscripted, which made him a favorite of the press, Gingrich knew that the key to doing well in a debate was in being very present and aware of the flow of the debate as it unfolded, taking advantage of the ebbs and currents around him.
He compared a great debate performance to that of a great jazz musician. Think about it; it makes perfect sense. To know the notes and music is a prerequisite for a fantastic performance. There is a minimum level of competency required to perform. In the jazz example, one must know how to play the instrument, must know the piece of music and must have the ability to play the notes with others in the group. These skills are learned first. The great jazz players not only know how to play their instruments and songs, they also know how to play with emotion and passion and to connect with the audience through their music. They interact with other musicians and the audience, incorporating the pauses -- the off notes -- whatever comes up, into their music. They perform with the audience, not for the audience.
The same occurs with the best debaters. They connect on an emotional level with those in the audience, and draw them into the debate. If a candidate is focused on delivering a certain message, in a particular phrase, then they are focused on the wrong item. Additionally, as they focus on relating a specific phrase, they can get rattled if the phrase does not come off as practiced. The focus instead should be on being intently present during the process, connecting with the audience and being authentically themselves.
Grab the popcorn. It's time to watch a political jam session.