How do you debate Donald Trump?
The real-estate tycoon, reality television star and now GOP presidential hopeful is a puzzle to observers of the 2016 campaign. In stump speeches, he often goes off on tangents about illegal immigration and overseas business deals, and jabs at politicians on both sides of the aisle.
As Republicans prepare to take the stage alongside Trump in Cleveland on Thursday, campaign advisors and others share insights into how to debate Trump:
“It is different for every candidate. If I were advising a third-tier candidate I might engage in order to borrow some of the spotlight the media has trained on Trump, especially to sound like a strong, reasonable voice by comparison.
“If I were advising a top-tier candidate, I would advise ignoring him and communicating your own message. As my boyfriend, who grew up on a ranch, says: ‘Never wrestle a pig. You just end up getting dirty and making the pig mad.’
“That said, in a debate, the top-tier candidates need to be prepared for crazy attacks from Trump and need to be ready to respond with strength and poise.”
- Katie Packer Gage, deputy campaign manager to 2012 Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney
Focus on your message.
“Trump doesn’t need anyone else’s help to get attention or headlines. The governor [candidate Mike Huckabee of Arkansas] is going into this with the sole focus of using his time to get his message out, show the contrast and also display his personality and connect with people from the stage.”
- Alice Stewart, communications director for former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee
Look both ways and listen.
“Look, this is about connecting with the voters and this is going to be a very strange election cycle. It already is. We have not had anything like this since 1940 in our party, where there has not been a front-runner of any kind. It’s sort of like a NASCAR race where we know there might be three or four drivers that can ultimately win. But there’s another 12 drivers in the race, some of whom shouldn’t even have a driver’s license, and somehow you have to kind of survive this track and these crazy drivers and what may or may not happen.”
- John Weaver, senior strategist to Ohio Gov. John Kasich
Bring up his record.
“Donald Trump’s long and storied career as a businessman is one of his major attributes with voters. The other nine candidates would be wise to point out the damage done to the Trump business brand since he’s officially entered the race and made disparaging comments about Mexican immigrants and Sen. John McCain.
“Trump and some of his brands have been dropped by NBCUniversal, Univision and Macy’s. Two major chefs have decided not to open up restaurants at Trump properties and Mayor Bill de Blasio has said New York City won’t be conducting any new business deals. The other candidates would be wise to directly attack Mr. Trump on a subject where he’s considered to be extremely strong and experienced.
“This strategy was successfully executed by Republicans against John Kerry regarding the issue of his military service and by Democrats against Mitt Romney concerning his business credentials.”
- Aaron Kall, debate director, University of Michigan
“Trump’s worst enemy is himself. On virtually every issue, he has contradicted a previous position he has taken. His debate opponents should come armed with Trump’s own words to use against him. But you can’t confront him on the positions he’s taking, because he’s currently taking popular positions. You have to discredit him by showing that he has taken other positions on these issues in the past. Candidates may not want to go after him because they hope that when he implodes [his supporters] will support them. But if no one responsibly confronts Trump’s past in the debate, he will come out of the debate more popular than ever.”
- Jon Fleischman, founder and publisher of the California-based FlashReport.org