Will personality or policy dominate at second GOP debate?
GWEN IFILL: The stage is set for tonight's CNN Republican debate at the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library in California.
Eleven candidates meet in the prime-time event. And four more with the lowest polling numbers face off in an earlier round. The majority of those on the stage have a great deal riding on its outcome, as they seek to emerge from the shadow of front-runner Donald Trump.
Political director Lisa Desjardins is in Simi Valley tonight, and she is watching the doings and joins us now.
LISA DESJARDINS: Hey, Gwen.
GWEN IFILL: So, tell me what we — so, let's talk about Donald Trump, first of all.
What is it that he has at stake as the prohibitive front-runner at this point?
LISA DESJARDINS: It might sound strange for someone who is so far out in front, but there are big stakes that the Trump campaign sees at this point.
They think that he needs to work on his long-term viability, make sure that by being a firebrand, he doesn't become only the firebrand. And by that, they say they're going to talk about trying to tone him down. Donald Trump himself talked about that to CBN, the Christian Broadcasting Network, in the last day.
And, Gwen, I noticed this in his speech yesterday aboard the USS Iowa, when he was speaking to veterans. We noticed — or I did, at least — a less sharp tone, still talking about the same issues, Gwen, talking about immigration, talking about what he calls the border babies.
But he seemed to have a less sharp tone overall. And the campaign thinks that's important, so that he can actually make it past this early wave he's riding, and get some real solid ground beneath him for Iowa, for New Hampshire, for the spring and through March.
GWEN IFILL: Well, speaking of early waves, we know that Jeb Bush and Scott Walker had some pretty big early waves. They may yet again, but they are looking at this debate a little bit differently. What's at stake for them?
LISA DESJARDINS: That's right.
They have perhaps the highest stakes of anyone on stage, because they had such a clear slide. Talking to those campaigns — let's start, first of all, with Jeb Bush. What the Bush campaign wants to do now going forward is have the former governor be more assertive.
Also, he will keep talking about policy issues. But they say he is going to specifically differentiate himself more and more from Donald Trump. How will he do that? Well, we have seen a glimmer of it already. He's going to talk about how he is a true conservative and make the argument that Donald Trump is not a conservative and not a Republican.
He's already been doing that, Gwen, as we have seen, but now they're going to ramp that up. As for Scott Walker, who considers himself the ultimate conservative — notice the theme here, Gwen — his campaign says he will also be more aggressive, that he is going to try and get out front, and these are the words they told me, inject himself more into the overall debate.
Also, look for Scott Walker to come out with more policy positions. They think he is a smart candidate who has serious policy to offer. They say the time for sort of the summer lovefest is over and they think this more serious phase of the campaign will lead to perhaps more consideration of policy. At least, that's what they hope.
GWEN IFILL: Well, let's talk about that. Assuming that this is the — we're now entering the more serious phase of the campaign, whatever that might mean this year, we do assume that, at some point tonight or going forward, they will talk about policy. Is that in the playbook, not only for tonight, but after tonight for any of these candidates?
LISA DESJARDINS: Right.
I think it's a fascinating moment, Gwen, because that exact issue, do you talk about policy or not now, is one of the strategic issues separating these campaigns. You're going to see, as I said, Bush and Walker coming out, perhaps even pounding us with a lot of serious policy, showing that they know their stuff on serious issues and that they know how to govern.
They will probably speak to their past experience. John Kasich, we may see some policy positions from him as well. But there are other candidates, like Donald Trump, who aren't offering specifics, except he did on immigration, but with that exception, we don't know exactly how he wants to build the American military, and so far he has no plans to tell us.
We will see if he has more position papers. But one specific contrast, Gwen, I talked to Dr. Ben Carson just in the last hour-and-a-half and I asked him, when do you think is the right time to come out with more policy positions? We really haven't seen how he wants to get things done.
And he said to me, "Honestly, I don't think that policy specifics are helpful right now. I don't think that's what I should be doing. I think the American people get — need to get to know the voters."
And, Gwen, what I think that speaks to is the appetite among American voters right now that these politicians are feeling and trying to feel out. Do they want someone that they like, trust, and who is an outsider, or do they want someone who they think can govern? Both sides of this Republican field are gambling on what the answer to that question is.
GWEN IFILL: And some of them are assuming that people will wait to eat the spinach, I suppose.
Lisa Desjardins, thank you very much. Have a good time at the debate.
LISA DESJARDINS: You got it. Oh, of course.