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GOP candidates prepare to stand out in crowded debate

The 17 Republican presidential candidates will square off tonight in two rounds of debate in Cleveland. With so many candidates, not to mention leading candidate and wildcard Donald Trump, curiosity about the debate is high. To discuss what we can expect, Gwen Ifill speaks with NewsHour political director Lisa Desjardins.

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  • GWEN IFILL:

    Tonight in Cleveland, 17 Republican candidates are facing each other in a pair of highly anticipated debates sponsored by FOX News.

    Donald Trump leads the field heading into the night, and the other candidates are hoping to use the event to steal a little of his thunder.

    Political director Lisa Desjardins is in Cleveland covering it, and she joins me now.

    Lisa, do we know what Donald Trump's strategy is? There's been much, much talk about his appearance on that stage in a few hours.

  • LISA DESJARDINS:

    Well, much like everything else with Donald Trump, his campaign is giving a sort of different take than you might expect. They're saying that Donald Trump has not prepared at all for this debate and they're boasting about that.

    But if you talk to other campaigns, Gwen, his opponents, they will tell you, on background, not giving their names, they frankly don't believe it, though this talk about Trump, he wants to put that image out of a man who just says what's on the top of his head.

  • GWEN IFILL:

    Well, assuming — and we know this to be true — that he's not the only person on the stage tonight, what are the other candidates trying to do and who has the most riding on finding a way to stand out?

  • LISA DESJARDINS:

    Right.

    Tonight in prime time, the other nine candidates include I think two who may have the most riding on this. Actually, I will change that to three. Marco Rubio and Rand Paul came out strong before the announcement. A lot was expected of them. And yet, right now in the polls, we see them not living up to that expectation.

    So I think they have a lot riding on this tonight. Also, Jeb Bush, Jeb Bush wants to be the reasonable and alternative to Donald Trump, but right now, frankly, I think his campaign could use more momentum.

    Now, as for strategies, Jeb Bush, we know his strategy. He came out with a video today talking about his experience, but one strategy I want our viewers to pay particular attention to will come from Ted Cruz. I was standing with him and a crew of other reporters today when I heard Cruz talk about things he hasn't before.

    He said he's running as a populist, Gwen. He kept saying phrases like the working man, steelworkers, that that's who he's fighting for. He has a clear strategy tonight, Gwen. He's going for blue-collar workers and I also think he's not going after Donald Trump.

  • GWEN IFILL:

    Let's talk a little bit about the format. We're talking about 10 people on stage, a minute to speak, only a few seconds of rebuttal afterwards. There are three moderators. How's all that going to fit?

  • LISA DESJARDINS:

    You know, I have my questions about that myself.

    But I'll tell you, from looking at the early debate, the one that just finished a few minutes ago, they did actually seem to get in some substance to these questions, and, in fact, they didn't have to use much rebuttal time at all. But we will see, because I believe going off that first debate, the FOX News anchors did seem to want to encourage candidates to challenge each other or go after each other.

    If a candidate names another candidate on stage by name, Gwen, that other candidate who is being attacked will have time for rebuttal. We're not really sure how that is going to work. But I will say, given the early debate, a one-minute answer, these candidates got a lot in. They clearly prepared.

  • GWEN IFILL:

    Who got the better of that early debate, that seven folks who didn't make the polling cutoff for the big boys' debate?

  • LISA DESJARDINS:

    Yes. I think that Carly Fiorina had a strong moment in this debate when she was asked about Donald Trump and she went straight for him.

    As she said, Donald Trump, she pointed out, was close with the Clintons. She asked her other members on stage, did any of you ever get a call from Bill Clinton? She also pointed out some flips in position for Donald Trump. She seemed to be the most aggressive on stage. She had a big moment.

    And I think — but other than that, honestly, I heard a lot of stump speeches and things we have heard before from most of these candidates.

  • GWEN IFILL:

    OK. On a range of circus on the one end and sober on the other, what are the atmospherics there in Cleveland leading up to tonight's big face-off?

  • LISA DESJARDINS:

    We came into this debate — I did, at least — thinking, wow, what an amazing atmosphere this is going to be, 17 candidates. It never has happened before.

    But I will tell you, being in this arena, there is really not that sense of drama. Talking to candidates and talking to their campaigns, there is almost a sense of the unknown, a sense of sort of hesitancy about what's ahead and how to handle it, not a dramatic sense, but it's a questioning sense. And that, frankly, is surprising me.

    Also, Gwen, talking to Republican aides outside of the campaign, there's a concern about tonight's debate. They don't want it to become a circus. They had hoped this year would be a little bit more stress-free, be more organized than past years. And they're concerned that this could go off the rails with so many candidates and so many unpredictable candidates.

  • GWEN IFILL:

    Well, maybe if they bring in LeBron for a walk-through, that will bring a little excitement into the arena tonight.

    (LAUGHTER)

  • GWEN IFILL:

    Lisa Desjardins, thank you very much.

  • LISA DESJARDINS:

    My pleasure.

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