When Donald Trump walks onto the debate stage in Cleveland Thursday night, he’s going to be on his best behavior. He won’t call any of his nine GOP presidential opponents names or attack their character and/or intelligence.

No, I’m just kidding. Of course he’s going to do these outrageous things, and probably a lot more, because he can’t help himself. Trump didn’t instantly become the front-runner for the nomination by playing nice. He tops more than 20 percent of Republican respondents in the polls by taking unbelievable potshots at everything in his sight that doesn’t fit his far-right, simplistic world view.

Too many illegal immigrants in this nation? Trump says just put up a wall all across our southern border and make Mexico pay for it. With that problem under control, President Trump says he’ll get down to what he does best: create jobs. Don’t pay any attention to the fact he’s declared corporate bankruptcy four times — that’s just the liberal media trying to make him look bad.

Pundits say Trump is tapping into the frustration of so many Americans who are fed up with politics as usual, but I think the real reason is darker and more offensive than that one. On immigration, he’s deliberately pitting Latinos against the white, ultra-conservative GOP base by exploiting their racial fears. When he calls his Republican rivals “idiots” or “losers,” the egocentric billionaire isn’t playing out some grand populist strategy.

He’s just Trump being The Donald, the obnoxious, larger-than-life character he’s played on reality TV for years.

Love him or hate him — and most people do one or the other — his status as the current front-runner shows why few just ignore him. He’s an entertainer, a celebrity, not a politician, and that’s why he’s gotten so much attention since he entered the race. Las Vegas could make a killing taking bets on which fellow candidate he’ll attack first during the debate.

But my skepticism in Trump’s ability to play politics in a less flamboyant fashion isn’t a universal belief. A Wyoming debate expert I contacted to get his prognostication about what will transpire Thursday believes Trump will genuinely be on his best behavior. No kidding.

“The person who resorts to the type of ad hominem attacks, the name-calling type of debate theory that Mr. Trump seems to enjoy, usually looks the fool,” said Doug Hope, Casper College’s debate coach. “He’s an intelligent man, so I would think he might realize he could come off as childish.”

Hope is a keen observer of political debates and as much a political junkie as I am, so maybe I do have this Trump fellow figured out all wrong, and he does have some self-control. He’s managed to win the hearts and minds of one-fifth of Republicans surveyed nationally, and perhaps he’ll sit back and let his opponents self-destruct. Trump’s behavior so far has them all on edge, so I suppose a transformation into Mr. Nice Guy is a legitimate possibility.

But while I respect Hope’s prediction, I still don’t think it’s in Trump’s nature to be so calm, cool and collected. That’s just not his shtick. I don’t think he’ll do anything to hurt his chances, but he’s not going to suddenly be a wallflower when millions are watching. He’s a star, and he’ll likely keep playing the part and throw in just enough zingers to let the audience know he can be a bad boy who still calls the shots.

Hope said the nine other candidates should ignore Trump if he does go on the attack. “It’s really their only option,” he explained. “They should pivot and go right to the stump speeches they deliver every day of the campaign.”

The net result for the audience, the instructor added, is a debate with much less substance than it might have offered. That’s the opposite of must-see TV, and a shame as far as the event’s entertainment value goes, but he’s right. Good debate performances are usually only noted fleetingly; bad ones are what’s memorable. When the media dissects what happened and declares who won and who lost, if Trump gets a candidate flustered it will stick in people’s brains.

Much criticism has been directed at host Fox News for limiting the debate to the 10 candidates who are leading, on average, in five national polls. The other six will appear at an earlier, much less publicized debate that will probably doom their respective candidacies, because a) no one will be watching, and b) they can’t raise campaign funds if no one’s watching.

Hope doesn’t blame the network for the restrictions, he said, because “it’s going to be hard enough to keep order with 10 people. Sixteen would be a nightmare. They would spend half the debate time just giving their opening remarks.”

He said with national exposure at such a premium during a debate, candidates need to say as much as they can for as long as they can and make sure they keep the microphone. “You’ll see 10 people trying to hog as much time as possible, so they all go over their time limits,” Hope said. “Whoever keeps the mike and talks the most articulately is generally perceived as the winner.”

The debate coach said he will be watching a few candidates closely, because he thinks they have a good chance to do well and move up in the polls. One of his favorites is Kentucky Sen. Rand Paul.

“I like his style,” Hope said. “I would look to Sen. Paul to have a good night.”

He has the same belief in the debate abilities of Sen. Lindsey Graham of South Carolina. But Graham likely won’t make the main debate cut-off because he’s ranked too low in the polls.

In my view, the candidate most likely to be gaffe-prone is former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee, who embarrassed himself and enraged many people last week when he criticized President Barack Obama’s historic deal with Iran. Huckabee ridiculously and incorrectly asserted the agreement gives our enemy an opportunity to quickly develop nuclear weapons, and Obama “will take the Israelis and march them to the door of the oven.”

Huckabee has said many stupid things during his campaigns, like when he opined, “We ought to declare that we will be free of energy consumption in this country within a decade.” He can be unintentionally funny, but his offensive Obama comment was more like the real Mike Huckabee. I think there are more obnoxious statements in his future before he inevitably bows out of the race, and he’s on a roll, so another could well be made at the first debate. That alone is worth tuning in for.

Hope said presidential debates don’t have many teachable moments for students, because “they’re kind of the opposite of what we do in competitions.” He added, though, that young debaters can use them to learn how to deflect others’ arguments by watching how politicians dodge criticism.

In recent years, Hope said, presidential candidates who have done admirably well include Bill Clinton, George W. Bush (“he has that Texas charm”) and, at the front of the class, Barack Obama.

“Mitt Romney is actually a pretty good debater,” the Casper coach said. “It’s only when he goes off script that he has problems, like his ‘binder full of women’ comment.”

Politicians who are quality debaters naturally rise to the top, Hope said. The exception, he noted, was Republican vice presidential candidate Sarah Palin, a former governor of Alaska.

“She had a good debate against Joe Biden,” he recalled. “But because expectations for her were so low, she appeared to be much better than she was.”

Hope said early debates like this week’s GOP event, which happens more than 15 months before the 2016 presidential election, actually don’t sway many people’s opinions about the candidates. “In fact, unless somebody says something crazy, no one remembers them at all,” he concluded.

No crazy comments when the field includes Trump, Huckabee, Rick Santorum, Chris Christie, and maybe Rick Perry? Not a chance in Cleveland.

— Columns are the signed perspective of the author, and do not necessarily reflect the views of WyoFile’s staff, board of directors or its supporters. WyoFile welcomes guest columns and op-ed pieces from all points of view. If you’d like to write a guest column for WyoFile, please contact WyoFile editor-in-chief Dustin Bleizeffer at dustin@wyofile.com.

Kerry Drake

Veteran Wyoming journalist Kerry Drake has covered Wyoming for more than four decades, previously as a reporter and editor for the Wyoming Tribune-Eagle and Casper Star-Tribune. He lives in Cheyenne and...

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