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The VICE Guide to the First Republican Presidential Debate

At this point, it seems like Donald Trump is the only guy running for president this year. But nine other candidates will be on stage tonight, and they've been dying to get your attention.
August 6, 2015, 7:03pm
Illustrations by Drew Lerman

It's finally here. After months of build-up, America will finally get to meet the Republican presidential candidates tonight, when they descend on Cleveland's Quicken Loans Arena for the first debate of the 2016 primaries. And while there will be at least eight more debates this election cycle, there's really nothing like the first to get you revved up for what is already promising to be a very long and very crowded race.

If you've been following the frenzied media coverage these past few weeks, you might think that Donald Trump is the only guy running for president this year. In fact, there are a bunch of other candidates, and they have all been dying to get your attention—so much so, that they've started taking out chainsaws and beating the shit out of cellphones just for a few of your measly clicks. So let's humor them already, before Ted Cruz assaults another defenseless breakfast food with his machine gun.

Who are all of these other non-Donald Trump Republicans vying for a chance to be the next leader of the free world? Well, there are 16 of them, but because putting 17 people who think they should be president of the United States on one stage at the same time would be mayhem, Fox News, which is hosting tonight's debate, has broken them into two groups.

The A-Team will go on stage at primetime, and includes the 10 most popular candidates, as determined by Roger Ailes and Fox's polling analysts. The remaining seven were relegated to a 5 pm kiddie table debate, where they presumably banded together to form a plan to knock off Trump and the Supreme Leader of Iran in one clean hit.

The Kiddie Table. Illustration by Drew Lerman

Because 17 is too many politicians for anyone to keep track of, let's stay focused on tonight's Varsity Ten. Below is a guide to each of the candidates, so you know what to expect from the guys getting behind those podiums at 9 pm tonight.

The real-estate-mogul-slash-reality-TV-star will be the 800-pound orangutan in the room at Thursday's debate. But unlike most proverbial primates, Trump will be very, very visible—as the current Republican frontrunner, he will be front-and-center on stage tonight, blinding Fox viewers with his iridescent orange glow. What he will do once he's up there, though, is anyone's guess.

Trump, being Trump, has apparently decided to wing it during his first debate, at least according to one campaign aide, who told VICE that while Trump's staff has compiled briefing memos and talking points, the candidate himself hasn't done any formal debate prep. He has, however, suggested that he will play nice, at least to a point.

"I'll have to feel it out, see where everyone else is coming from," he told the Washington Post."I'd prefer no conflict, no infighting, but if they hit me, I'll hit them harder. It's all going to depend on the moment."

As for the rest of the Republican field, they appear to have spent the past few weeks fretting about just how to handle a candidate who, on the one hand, seems to have strong support from their party's voters, but who also has a tendency to alienate entire demographic groups—and major US trading partners—with his casual racism. John Weaver, a campaign advisor for Ohio Governor John Kasich, has perhaps described this process best:

Imagine a NASCAR driver mentally preparing for a race knowing one of the drivers will be drunk. That's what prepping for this debate is like

— John Weaver (@JWGOP)July 27, 2015

According to media reports over the past few days, the prevailing strategy among the Republican candidates seems to be to be to simply ignore Trump—setting up a potentially bizarre scenario in which Trump says ridiculous things and the rest of the people standing near him pretend not to hear him.

As for the moderators, they claim they're prepared for whatever crazy Trump throws at them. "We have a plan," Megyn Kelly told Politico, "but we're not going to share it with you."

Related: Why Donald Trump Is Better Than You

Bush, who's presumed frontrunner status has been derailed by The Donald, will likely use Thursday as an opportunity to set himself up as the anti-Trump—the reasonable, level-headed executive who Republican voters can turn to when their fling with the billionaire madman has ended. Theoretically, this shouldn't be difficult for Bush, whose positions and general demeanor tend to be relatively more moderate than the rest of the Republican field.

But recently, Bush has shown an unfortunate tendency to serve up Romney-esque sound bytes that Democrats can gleefully dine out on for months. To wit, he spent days trying to come up with an answer to whether, in hindsight, he thought it was the right call to invade Iraq; suggested that Americans need to "work longer hours," and said that "immigrants are more fertile." Just this week, he mused that "I'm not sure we need a half a billion dollars for women's health issues."

On top of that, while other Republican candidates are busying ignoring Trump, they're going to need to find another target for their ire and attacks. And who better to target than Bush, the squishy centrist claiming to be the party's Establishment pick. Trump, in particular, has shown a remarkably strong disdain for Jeb and the entire Bush political dynasty. So the youngest Bush scion could be in for a very rough night.

Illustration by Drew Lerman

If you've followed politics at all over the past few years, you already know who Walker is, and have probably figured out how feel about him. Do you like things like unions and public schools and campaign finance reform? Than you probably feel a little like these guys. Like guns and deregulation an anything that includes the word "voucher"? Then Scott Walker is your man. Either way, nothing Walker says tonight is likely to change your mind.

Like Walker, Rubio is young. Like Bush, he's from Florida. And like Trump, he loves the cameras, and performs fairly well in front of them. Unlike all of them, though, Rubio is handsome, and also Hispanic, which means that he's constantly being referred to as the "new face of the Republican Party." As such, he will likely spend Thursday night dropping casual Pitbull references and promising something he calls the "New American Century." He probably won't explain what any of it means, or what it has to do with why he should be president, except that Hillary Clinton and Jeb Bush are old, and he is young and shiny and exciting and you should vote for him.

Six months ago, Paul looked like the promising future of a different kind of Republican Party—an anti-war conservative whose libertarian leanings might appeal to a broader audience beyond the GOP's old, white voter base. But recently, the buzz around Paul's candidacy has flamed out. His fundraising has been disappointing. Last week, Politico reported that his campaign team is crumbling, fatigued and beset by infighting. Then, on Wednesday, the US Department of Justice announced it was indicting the head of Paul's Super PAC on charges stemming from his father's 2012 presidential campaign. So needless to say, things aren't going great.

Thursday night is Paul's chance to turn things around and save his campaign (and perhaps his political career). On Wednesday, he told Breitbart News that he plans on "mixing it up" and "standing his ground," which presumably means trying to cause cranial explosions by suggesting that perhaps negotiating with Iran isn't the worst idea President Obama has ever had.

A former Ivy League debater, Cruz has been waiting for this moment his whole life. "Ted Cruz was a king in Parliamentary Debate Land," a former collegiate debater who competed against Cruz wrote in the National Journal this week. "In that environment," another debater remarked, "he was cool, spectacular, a god." Which is to say, Cruz will be more insufferable than usual when he gets on stage tonight.

Illustration by Drew Lerman

This is the second goat rodeo for Huckabee, so he knows what he's in for. But while the Huckabee of 2008 was cast as a cozy conservativ populist with a pastor's heart of gold, the Huckabee of 2016 is a little bit richer—and a little more alarmist, unhinged by political developments like the legalization of gay marriage, and the pending nuclear deal with Iran. Discussing the latter last week, he said that by signing the deal, Obama "would take the Israelis and basically march them to the door of the oven." So Huckabee could certainly make Thursday's debate more interesting.

A former pediatric neurosurgeon who was the first person to ever separate conjoined twins from the head, Carson's turn toward politics—and his popularity among Republican voters—is one of the most enduring mysteries of the 2016 election so far. He got off to a bit of a rough start, with some startlingly horrible comments about homosexuality, but now seems to hve realized that people get uncomfortable when he talks about gays. And as the only non-Trump candidate on stage tonight who has never had a career in politics, he may turn out to be the most reasonable option of the bunch.

Once considered a leading contender for the Republican nomination, Christie just barely made the cut for Thursday's debates, having struggled to overcome his reputation for political bullying and the general dislike he has seemed to inspire among Republican voters. But he'll likely be the only guy onstage tonight with the balls to take on Trump, so for that we welcome him. And anyway, there's really only room for one brash and vindictive Northeastern conservative in this Republican primary.

The white guy on the end. Feel free to ignore him—he probably won't be around much longer.

The debate starts at 9 pm Thursday. Follow Grace Wyler on Twitter for hair updates.

Follow illustrator Drew Lerman on Twitter.