Would A Wonky Debate Help the Establishment Candidates?

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By Perry Bacon Jr.

Tuesday night’s Republican debate promises to be an opportunity for the presidential hopefuls with experience in governing and detailed policy plans to distinguish themselves from Ben Carson and Donald Trump, the two non-politicians who currently lead in polls.

In interviews with Politico published on Monday, Fox Business News’ Neil Cavuto and Maria Bartiromo, who will moderate the debate along with Wall Street Journal editor-in-chief Gerard Baker, promised a session singularly focused on policy. Cavuto said, “We’re business journalists. We’re nerds. We should embrace who we are.”

And in a bigger change, there will be two fewer candidates on stage than in past debates this cycle. Fox Business excluded New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie and former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee, who did not poll high enough to meet the network’s criteria for its prime-time debate.

With only eight of them in debating in the main event, each candidate could face more direct questions from the moderators and potentially more attacks from one another. This could be a particularly troublesome prospect for Carson, who has admitted he lacks knowledge of some major policy issues and has at times struggled to answer basic questions about his positions.

Bartiromo, for example, has suggested she will ask the candidates to name people they might consider appointing to key Cabinet posts. Answering such a question will require candidates to actually know the names of relevant policy experts and be sure they are citing a person who is both qualified for a top-level job and not so controversial that naming the person will backfire on the candidate.

This format will benefit Carson and Trump in one obvious way: it will reduce focus on the more controversial aspects of their candidacies. If the debate moderators ask only policy questions, as they have suggested, the retired neurosurgeon will have a brief respite from the new controversies over whether he has made up or exaggerated parts of his biography.

But in previous debates this year, when debates become more detailed and substantive, Carson and Trump often speak less. If this pattern holds, former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush, Texas Sen. Ted Cruz, businesswoman Carly Fiorina, Ohio Gov. John Kasich, Kentucky Sen. Rand Paul and Florida Sen. Marco Rubio will have more time than in previous debates to articulate their views to an audience of millions.

If the debate turns substantive, immigration could become a major topic. On Monday, a federal appeals court upheld a lower court ruling that suspended President Obama's 2014 executive actions that would allow millions of undocumented immigrants to be protected from deportation and eligible to get work permits. All the Republican candidates have opposed that executive action, arguing it was an example of overreach by Obama.

But Bush and Rubio in particular have in the past given vague answers when asked about Obama's executive action on immigration in 2012, the one that specifically protected from deportation undocumented immigrants who are under 30 years old and were brought to the U.S. as children by their parents.That executive policy has remained in place.

Bush and Rubio have each suggested they would like that executive policy replaced by a comprehensive immigration law passed by both houses of Congress and signed by the president. But they have often demurred when asked if they would leave that execution action in place as president if Congress can't pass a comprehensive immigration bill.

Cruz and Trump in particular have strongly opposed all of these executive actions on immigration and pledged to reverse them if elected.

Much of the campaign up to this point has been focused on the rise of political outsiders. If, as advertised, Tuesday's debate turns a spotlight on the kinds of policies the candidates are offering, voters could see them all in a new light.