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The presidency is a job. It bears a job description, constitutionally and functionally. Voters in effect conduct the job interviews, winnow the field of applicants, and make a final choice. Direct democracy demands the type of access, argument, and accountability provided by official candidate forums. The Fox News debate Wednesday is the first true opportunity for voters to see and hear most of the declared Republican candidates, shoulder to shoulder, live, and facing tough questions from moderators, if not each other.

The temptation is to go viral; the task is to present oneself as a serious policymaker, unifier and visionary at a fraught time in America.

Here are six key things I will look and listen for in the debate:

First, how will candidates handle the front-runner and former president, absent from the stage but hovering over the election and dominating in the national and state polls? Their conundrum is simple: on the one hand, they must attack Trump, and on the other hand, they must attract Trump voters. The temptation to pile-on Trump, who has said he will not participate in “any” debates, might include his legal woes, which a vast majority of GOP voters say is driven by partisan politics, or his “personality” or his policies.

The candidates don’t bear Trump’s burdens, nor does he bear theirs. He is the most recognizable political name on the planet, boasts a list of accomplishments as president and is leading every one of them in every poll. 

Rarely do candidates succeed simply by not being someone or something else. The other Republicans should say whether they would pardon a convicted Trump and reveal, in detail, which components of the America First agenda are objectionable and would be absent from their presidency, and why. As for personality, in politics it is better to have one than not have one. Many voters see strength, tenacity, resolve, physical agility and mental acuity as key to getting results, and as lacking in the current president.


Second, what is each candidate’s five or ten-point plan to rescue and grow the economy? Americans are hurting under “Bidenomics,” a stifling mess of higher inflation, diminished wages, out of control government spending, taxes, regulations and energy dependence. The conversation is long past the cost of gas and groceries, as for many Americans buying a home or car is increasingly out of reach, and credit card debt has hit a record high. 

The Trump-Pence administration’s pro-growth policies, lifted all Americans: poverty hit a record low and median household income reached a record high for numerous minority groups. Similarly, crime, fentanyl and an influx of over six million migrants across the porous southern border have placed a financial strain on communities, too. Substance over soundbites, lady and gentlemen. Be specific. People are suffering.

Third, can DeSantis survive the expected all-out assault to dislodge him in the number 2 spot and regain traction and which of the other candidate(s) will have a breakout moment? Politically, no one had a better 2022 or a worse 2023 than Ron DeSantis. Last fall he won a second term in the third-largest state by nearly 20 percent, and some polls showed him leading Trump by double digits in a two-man race. Since then, he has shed staff, stumbled on the trail, alienated some donors while activating the roving eye of others, and mistakenly positioned himself as an alternative to Trump rather than an alternative to Biden. Keeping his cool and demonstrating connective tissue with voters is key.

Seasoned debaters like former Vice President Mike Pence and former New Jersey Governor Chris Christie know their way around the big boy stage. Each were among the most visible and vocal supporters of President Trump and now – egged on by a thirsty mainstream media and other Never Trumpers – are among his chief antagonists. No stage fright or opening night jitters for these two, who have already qualified for the next debate. Entrepreneur and political energizer bunny Vivek Ramashwany is the happiest warrior on the trail, quick with a quip and able to go deep on policy like a never-ending TED talk. South Carolina Senator Tim Scott adds a great deal to the conversation – and to the country – when he speaks calmly yet compellingly about his background and his vision.


Fourth, Republicans must be peacocks, not ostriches, on abortion, given the recent gains for life, and the unconscionable extremism of the Democrat position to allow abortion anyone anytime anywhere anyhow. Stop hiding and start fighting. It’s pathetic to lose to Democrats that are out of step with the 71 percent of Americans who say they support abortion until 15 weeks (second trimester) with exceptions for rape, incest and life of the mother. As technology has progressed, revealing more about fetal development and helping premature babies born at 22 or 23 weeks survive and thrive, Democrats have become “science deniers.” “Science!” they screamed to mask five-year-olds stuck at home during COVID, but can’t admit what they see on sonograms of five-month-old babies showing a clear image of a human life, the baby’s gender, heartbeat, organs and limbs? 

Which candidate(s) will highlight the important work of pregnancy crisis centers, the adoption option, and smoke out the outrageous Democrat position that allows abortions in the second and third trimesters and long after a fetus can feel pain? They should commit to being pro-life throughout a child’s entire life and stop pretending that this is a “states’ rights” issue only. A minimum federal standard of 15 weeks is both compassionate and a concession.  

Fifth, which candidates are willing to tackle issues that tend to appeal more to seniors, women, and youth, like education and health care? Ceding these issues to Democrats, or pretending “It’s (just) the economy, stupid!” is unforgivable. President Obama and Vice President Biden lied to the nation 13 years ago when they promised the insured they could “keep their plan” and “keep their doctor” and promised the uninsured that everyone would be covered. Voters want to hear something meaty from these candidates beyond being against government-run health care. Access, affordability, quality, transparency and choice in health insurance and health delivery remain elusive for many Americans.

Some sixty years after bigoted Democratic governors in the South stood in the schoolhouse door preventing kids of color from entering the schools, Democrats everywhere stand in the schoolhouse door preventing kids of all backgrounds from exiting failing schools and accessing quality, affordable education worthy of their humanity and dignity. Which Republicans have the courage and conviction on the debate stage to articulate specific policies that offer school choice, charter schools, educational freedom, and opportunity scholarships? Parents have a right to say where their children go to school and what is taught there. Children have a right to an education. Which candidates recognize this is not simply a “local” or “state” issue, but a civil rights issue for these kids?

Republican debate lineup

Republican presidential candidates will stand in this order at the GOP debate Wednesday night. (Fox News)

Sixth, candidates must bring it on foreign policy. “Commander-in-Chief” Biden has been reckless and feckless in foreign affairs, and his deputy, Kamala Harris, has embarrassed us on the world stage. What’s the point of having a female Vice President if due to her and Biden’s impulsive, deadly withdrawal from Afghanistan, Afghan women are less free?  President Trump achieved peace through strength, becoming the first modern president to keep us out of new wars, eliminated ISIS and terrorist leaders, compelled other countries to step up their fair share in defense spending, kept Russia out of Ukraine, Iran out of Israel, and held China accountable on fentanyl, trade, and defense.


What would Republican presidential candidates not named Trump do the same or do differently? Do they believe we have a moral and/or monetary obligation to defeat Putin and aid Ukraine? On China, if the GOP debaters reach for the lazy soundbite, “Ban TikTok!” ask them about banning Members of Congress from stock transactions, and why they are offending rather than engaging 150 million U.S. users (read: voters) who use TikTok monthly?  Is that as urgent as protecting the Uyghurs and Taiwan from China, holding China accountable for forced technology transfers and the origin of COVID-19, or getting Chinese fentanyl – the number one killer of 18-45 year olds in the country – out of our communities and kids’ veins?

Lastly, even as President Trump will loom large in absentia, I’m watching who can train their fire and a nation’s ire on the guy who currently holds the “job” of president. He is awful. Two thirds of Democrats don’t want him to run again, his vice president is even more unpopular than him, and polls show there is little confidence in their competence. Sure, it is fun and easy to mock Biden’s obvious mental and physical challenges and Harris’s losing battle with the TelePrompTer, but the stakes are too high and the nation too broken to repeat what people can already see. Like millions across America, I’ll be listening and looking for who – and how – to make Biden-Harris a one-term presidency and get our nation back on track.