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To attack or not to attack Trump? Crowd of GOP candidates faces tricky first debate

In the history of Republican presidential debates, there have never been 17 candidates competing for voter attention. There has also never been a major presidential debate with Donald Trump. Political director Lisa Desjardins reports from Cleveland on the upcoming -- and unusual -- Fox News debate.

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    Tomorrow, 17 Republican candidates for president will gather in Cleveland, 10 of them in prime time, for the first debate of the political season.

    Political director Lisa Desjardins is there with a preview.


    In the long and plentiful history of Republican presidential debates, there has never been an event like this one, not in size, not in flavor.

  • DONALD TRUMP, Republican Presidential Candidate:

    Well, you need somebody, because politicians are all talk, no action. Nothing's going to get done.


    Donald Trump, the prediction-defying, border-visiting, self-extolling businessman, may be the most colorful Republican front-runner in modern history, but he has never before been in a major debate.

    Ron Bonjean is among the longtime GOP strategists guessing at what Trump will do tomorrow night.

  • RON BONJEAN, Republican Strategist:

    He says he's going to go positive and play nice with the other candidates, but that's so unlike Trump. Once he starts getting attacked, I think it is going to be tough for him to stay quiet and stay positive.


    For the other candidates already wrestling with basic debate pressure, this adds a significant issue, attack or don't attack?


    If you're Jeb Bush, or Scott Walker or Marco Rubio, you're likely going to stay out of taking Trump on. You are going to act presidential because you're leading the field. You're in the top three or four positions here. For a lesser known candidate, like Dr. Ben Carson or Mike Huckabee, if I were them, I would want to take on Donald Trump.


    Of course, Donald Trump is not the only element of spectacle building here in Cleveland. The other is the general Republican field. Seventeen candidates is an all-time record and a first-time logistical nightmare. The result is a tricky and controversial decision to split up the candidates.

    In the main event, the two-hour prime-time debate, host FOX News has invited these top 10 candidates, the top 10 in an average of five national polls. That leaves out these seven candidates, Republicans whose resumes include senator, governor and a CEO who is the only woman in the Republican field. They will hold a separate, shorter debate earlier in the day.

    And some in that second group, like Rick Santorum, are crying foul.

  • RICK SANTORUM, Republican Presidential Candidate:

    National polls mean nothing. And so this is an arbitrary figure. And, unfortunately, the networks and the RNC have gone along with this irrelevant measure of legitimacy of candidacy.


    As was visible at this crowded New Hampshire Q&A Monday, the problem is there are 17 legitimate candidates. It's a problem for them, but, tomorrow, it could mean a fascinating night for voters.

    Lisa Desjardins, the PBS NewsHour, Cleveland.

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