The First Debate: Advice for the Republican Field on How to Handle Donald Trump

There is no shortage of opinions on how to handle the billionaire front-runner in Thursday's GOP debate.

Debate Preview: Who’s Got the Most at Stake?

Now that the final debate roster of Republicans candidates for Thursday's presidential debate in Cleveland, Ohio, has been set, the dynamic of what may transpire is starting to take shape. First and foremost, the biggest strategic unknown is the question of how to deal with the impending curve ball that is Donald Trump. On this and other questions, there is no shortage of advice being lobbed to the candidates. 

Don't legitimize Trump

In the Washington Post, Ed Rogers likens Trump to Ross Perot and recommends that in order to avoid what happened to George H.W. Bush in 1992, other Republicans should take a page from Lee Atwater.

The Bush campaign fed Ross Perot’s ego by treating him with reverence and by obviously being rattled by the prospect of his presence in the race. Perot could sense fear, and being feared no doubt made him feel like he was respected by his opponents. But, if Lee Atwater had been alive, he would have made up funny limericks poking fun at Perot, purposely mispronounced his name and had a field day orchestrating laughter at Perot’s wacky conspiracies and inconsistencies.

Rogers says if Republicans deny Trump the legitimacy Perot was given, he won't gain the respect Perot did from the public and ultimately drop out.

When discussing social programs, focus on existential threats

Last week, during the 50th anniversary of the establishment of Medicare, Tevi Troy gave Republicans advice in the Wall Street Journal on the topic of how to address social programs.

The lesson, then, for Jeb Bush and all the GOP presidential hopefuls, is not to run in fear when Democrats level Mediscare charges. Gov. Bush did the right thing after the New Hampshire incident: He stood his ground, and followed up by issuing a statement that highlighted some of the Medicare Trustee Report’s most dire warnings. Refusing to acknowledge the real threats to Medicare, he said, “is a politically expedient choice that jeopardizes the program itself for future generations.”

If Trump stole your voters, don't attack Trump

There is one senator who will almost certainly shy away from attacking Trump, even though he does not mind ticking off everyone else in his party. David Birdsell, a political science professor at Baruch College, told The Hill that Trump is putting Senator Ted Cruz in a tight spot.

Cruz represents the anti-establishment wing of the Republican Party, which Trump has captured in a big way. Birdsell says Trump has "out-bullhorned" Cruz, leaving the Texan with few options other than to support the real estate magnate in hopes of gaining Trump's supporters if his campaign falls apart.

If you are Trump, be cogent, avoid specifics

Maggie Haberman and Nick Corasaniti say this debate will be "huge" for Trump. However, the downside could be devastating for the billionaire front-runner if other candidates successfully challenge him on the specifics of policy.

Mr. Trump could come away a winner if he makes cogent points without sounding too hostile, presenting himself as more of a serious-minded, anti-establishment voice in a primary crowded with career Republican politicians. But there are risks for him if he turns the debate stage in Cleveland into another episode of the reality show his campaign has sometimes resembled.

Don't get trapped in a brawl with Donald; he will Trump you

Former Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich says the candidates who missed the debate may have dodged a bullet. On ABC's This Week the former speaker said the top 10 debate may become a "Trump versus everyone brawl," leading to chaos and unexpected outcomes.

It may well be that the folks who are at the 5:00 debate have a more interesting debate and a greater ability to get their message out. And in the age of social media, if they're all videotaping themselves, they can pick their best lines and get them out to all of their supporters.

It may be—I'm not saying it will—but it may be that 9:00 becomes the Trump versus everybody brawl.