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How much does the first GOP presidential debate matter?

Gwen Ifill talks to Tamara Keith of NPR and Susan Page of USA Today about the upcoming debate among the Republican presidential candidates, new campaign ads for Hillary Clinton and whether Vice President Joe Biden will jump into the race.

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  • GWEN IFILL:

    The political season heads into overdrive this week, with a candidates forum in New Hampshire tonight, and with a full-scale debate Thursday night in Cleveland. The debate, sponsored by FOX News, will feature the top 10 of the 17 major candidates. Who gets on stage will be determined by averaging polls.

    As of today, five candidates seem guaranteed a spot: Donald Trump, Jeb Bush, Scott Walker, Rand Paul, and Marco Rubio. Another three are highly likely to make the cut, Ted Cruz, Mike Huckabee and Ben Carson. That leaves three others to fight for the two remaining spots, Chris Christie, Rick Perry and John Kasich.

    What better time for Politics Monday tonight, with Tamara Keith of NPR and Susan Page of USA Today?

    Welcome to you both.

    So, assuming — there is an elephant in the room, as we always discuss on Monday nights, and his name is Donald Trump. But let's get past that for a moment. What do these candidates have to accomplish on the stage on Thursday night in order to break through?

  • SUSAN PAGE, USA Today:

    You know, I think they have different agendas facing them.

    I think for Jeb Bush, he wants to look presidential, an alternative to Donald Trump. I think, for Marco Rubio, who's faded a bit from the scene, he needs to reassert himself as being a player on the stage. I think Scott Walker needs to look competent, especially when it comes to foreign policy, because the last time we were listening to him, he had some stumbles and missteps.

    So, I think different players have different things they need to do on Thursday night.

  • GWEN IFILL:

    And is there anything Donald Trump needs to do?

  • TAMARA KEITH, NPR:

    I think he just needs to have fun, because that's what Donald Trump is there to do.

    I think the real question is what these candidates do with Donald Trump. I was doing a little bit of math. The thought is that with commercials and everything else, you are going to get about 90 minutes of actual talking time for candidates. There are 10 of them. That means, best-case scenario, they might each get nine minutes.

    How many of those nine minutes do they want to cede to Donald Trump? I think it's a big question. I think a lot of them want to be substantive possibly in their nine minutes or stand out in some way, and it will be a question as to whether Donald Trump will let them.

  • GWEN IFILL:

    Well, you know, it's interesting, because the rules, in order to get on the stage, are kind of important. In fact, the numbers — the names we just threw out there are not by any means official yet.

    So, those on the bubble, those like, say, John Kasich or Chris Christie, one or the other of them might make it — well, how important is it, at the first of nine debates, that they make it at this point?

  • SUSAN PAGE:

    I think it's pretty important. If you're down at the bottom of the field, or toward the bottom, you're at nine, 10, 11, I think it makes you look more serious than if you make the previous forum that they're going to — that FOX is going to have at 5:00 with the people who don't quite make the cut. I think…

  • GWEN IFILL:

    Mike Huckabee, Ted Cruz.

  • SUSAN PAGE:

    Right. I think it actually is important for Chris Christie or for Rick Perry to show that they should be part of the bigger conversation.

    It's not the end of the world if they're not in. We're going to have a lot debates to come, eight more debates to follow. But I think it is kind of a big thing. And we know that traditionally in each debate, there's a moment that encapsulates a debate.

  • GWEN IFILL:

    Right.

  • SUSAN PAGE:

    I'm predicting that that debate will — that moment will include Trump. It will either be something Donald Trump says…

  • GWEN IFILL:

    No. She's out on the edge.

    (LAUGHTER)

  • SUSAN PAGE:

    I know, it's crazy — or something someone says to Donald Trump.

    And especially for the candidates who are not in that first two or three, for them to be part of that moment would be a breakthrough. It would be something that would make us pay more attention to them.

  • GWEN IFILL:

    And if you're John Kasich, say, the governor of Ohio, who only got in the race a little — couple of weeks ago, just being on that stage might be a big enough breakthrough on its own.

  • TAMARA KEITH:

    Well, and in your home state, to be on that stage. I think he wants to be there, absolutely.

    You know, they will find other ways, though. The candidates at the kids table will find a way to stand out at the kids table debate. There is another forum tonight, two more hours of potential to stand out, and every Sunday show. And there are many opportunities, but, of course, especially for Republican candidates, on FOX News, this debate is a big moment.

  • GWEN IFILL:

    Today, we saw Hillary Clinton out with a couple of new — or over the weekend — a couple of new ads which are the kind of ads you usually see run by people who you have never heard of before.

    Hillary Clinton, probably the most well-known person in this race, is running these biographical ads. We see these old pictures of her from her days, early days at the Children's Defense Fund, when she was governor, first lady of Arkansas, married to Bill Clinton, obviously.

    And you wonder, why are we doing that at this stage, Tamara?

  • TAMARA KEITH:

    Well, her campaign and some of her good friends who I have spoken to feel like Hillary Clinton is the candidate that everyone thinks they know, but nobody really knows.

    And so, they have rolled out these biographical details in her speeches, but that hasn't really broken through. The headlines are still about the e-mails and the Clinton Foundation and the e-mails again. And so they're looking for a way to research those early primary and caucus voters directly and say, with sort of a soft focus, here's the Hillary Clinton we want you to know, without the filter.

  • GWEN IFILL:

    The other thing Hillary Clinton has done twice in the last few days is go directly after Jeb Bush, who she clearly thinks — first on — today on Planned Parenthood and whether Planned Parenthood should be defunded, and last week on — I'm forgetting what it was. But she went after him again last week as well.

    So, what is it that she's doing that for?

  • SUSAN PAGE:

    Well, she's apparently concluded that Donald Trump will not going be the Republican nominee, and that the most likely nominee is Jeb Bush, and so why not go after him now?

    She certainly doesn't want to go after her Democratic rivals, who are not actually in a position to deny her the nomination, at least not at this point. So I think that she's looking a little ahead to the general election.

    But it's interesting, just to go back to the autobiographical ads, the one with her — the one that is focused on her mother is really quite touching. And I think even people — and it makes her look — it goes to what her motivation has been in working for kids, as she did particularly in her early years as a lawyer.

    And I think that does show a side of Hillary Clinton that a lot of — even people who know her pretty well haven't — haven't really seen before. And it's something that I think she doesn't do well herself on stage when she's talking about it, but when you have those pictures narrated by Hillary Clinton, I think that is a different kind of picture of Hillary Clinton than we have seen before.

  • GWEN IFILL:

    Now, the person who has surfaced in the political chat world this week, but who is not on anybody's ballot, is Joe Biden, the vice president, and questions about whether Joe Biden, whether he should, or could or would run for president at this late stage in the debate.

    What have you heard?

  • TAMARA KEITH:

    Well, and, obviously, there has been reporting that his son, as he was dying, said, "Dad, you should run."

    What I'm getting is not anything that concrete. What I'm hearing from people is that, sure, there are feelers that are being put out by people who are close to Joe Biden. The question, though, is, is that — are feelers enough? I mean, Hillary Clinton, at this point, has a 50-state organizing strategy.

    She has 40 offices — 49 offices in Iowa. Bernie Sanders has something like 40 organizers in Iowa. There's a lot of infrastructure that Joe Biden doesn't yet have because he hasn't yet decided what he's doing.

  • GWEN IFILL:

    So, how serious a trial balloon is it, Susan?

  • SUSAN PAGE:

    We know that Joe Biden wants to run. If Joe Biden could run, he would run. His heart tells him that.

    He head tells him — has told him, at least this far, that he can't, there's not an opening. We talk about Hillary Clinton being beleaguered. She is not beleaguered among Democrats. Democrats like Hillary Clinton. They're excited about the idea of nominating the first woman.

  • GWEN IFILL:

    The question is whether she can beat the Republican next fall.

  • SUSAN PAGE:

    Now, if she imploded in a more serious way than she has so far, Joe Biden would love to be the person who rushes in there, but it's hard for me to see the opening being there for him at this time.

  • GWEN IFILL:

    But it's always a good idea to keep your name up there in the air.

    Susan Page of USA Today, Tamara Keith of NPR, as always, thank you.

  • TAMARA KEITH:

    Thank you.

  • SUSAN PAGE:

    Thanks.

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