The Trump Show

The Trump ShowThe Trump Show

Somewhere in a parallel universe, top-ranking Republican presidential candidates Jeb Bush, Scott Walker and Marco Rubio are gearing up for an inaugural primary debate where they will make their pitches to voters, contest one another’s policy proposals and calmly try to skirt attacks from tea party insurgents and nothing-to-lose outsiders.

Unfortunately for them, this is not that universe. This is Donald Trump’s universe, Dylan Byers wrote for Politico.

So instead, on Aug. 6, in Cleveland, the GOP hopefuls will appear stage right and stage left, flanking a real-estate mogul and reality television star who is all but certain to steal the spotlight, go on the offensive and thwart their hopes for a peaceful debate.

Trump’s presence at center stage, his reward if he maintains his lead in the polls, is likely to transform the first Republican debate into a major media event, bringing big ratings to Fox News, the debate sponsor. By the same token, however, it will likely turn the traditionally policy-focused event into a pageant of personality, which is a potential nightmare for other candidates.

Considered almost unthinkable just five weeks ago, Trump’s appearance at center stage is now the most inconvenient of truths for the would-be Republican frontrunners. From Milwaukee to Miami, campaign aides are already wrestling with the “Trump factor,” strategizing on how to engage with him (if at all) and how to stave off his attacks.

 “He might be the only person on that stage with nothing to lose,” said one senior Republican campaign adviser, “and he isn’t going down alone.”

At the same time, candidates will be eager to ensure that they are not just playing bit parts in a two-hour Donald Trump show. That will be especially challenging given the feverish media attention surrounding the notoriously braggadocios frontrunner.

“Unless everything changes in the next two weeks, which is always a possibility, I imagine Trump will be pretty much the top five stories of the debate just by showing up,” said Mark Leibovich, the chief national correspondent for The New York Times Magazine.

“There’s the ‘Will the other candidates attack Trump?’ story, the ‘Will Trump hold his own as a serious candidate?’ story, the ‘Will Trump have a grasp of the issues?’ story, the ‘What attention-getting thing did Trump say?’ story and the “Did you hear what Trump said about Candidate X?’ (or ‘What did Candidate X say to Trump?’) story, etc. Maybe someone like Jeb can sneak into the top six.”

Trump’s influence on the debate is not just a headache for candidates; it is a headache for the Republican National Committee, which had sought to gain greater control over the debate process after the chaos of the 2012 cycle. Despite the party’s effort to distance itself from Trump’s litany of controversial comments, there is nothing it can do to prevent his appearance on stage in Cleveland. Given his current standing atop the GOP pack, he would have to shed almost all of his supporters over the next week to fall out of the top 10.

But the real challenge rests with the candidates. The stakes are particularly high for Bush, who has been the target of much of Trump’s verbal assault over the past month. How Bush responds, or does not, could determine how conservative voters who have been skeptical of his candidacy view him. Other candidates, meanwhile, are hoping that Trump-Bush skirmishes leave the Floridian bloodied.