The second evening of Republican presidential debates will begin at 6 p.m. Eastern time, with an undercard debate featuring four low-performing candidates desperate to make up ground. Both debates will be shown on CNN.
The main event will begin at 8 p.m., as GOP front-runner Donald Trump faces off with 10 other Republicans in the most crowded primary debate in U.S. history.
It will also be three hours long. That makes a long evening of politics. So long, in fact, that it’s too much even for the most long-winded, indulgent orator in the Republican race: Trump himself. In mid-afternoon, he tweeted, “Will be heading over to the debate soon. Can you believe @CNN is “milking” it for almost 3 hours? Too long, too many people on stage!”
The early debate — only the second undercard in the history of primary debates — will include Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal, Sen. Lindsey O. Graham (R-S.C.), former senator Rick Santorum (Pa.) and former New York governor George Pataki. All are in desperate straits: They just made the 1-percent-polling cut, and this may be their last chance to make a good impression on a national audience.
The good news: The last undercard debate showed it can be done. Former tech executive Carly Fiorina ran away with the first debate, showing a sharp wit and a broad command of issues. On Wednesday, she will be on the main stage with Trump.
Both debates will be held at the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library, on a stage in front of a jetliner that served as Air Force One in Reagan’s time. It will be an imposing reminder that this crop of Republicans measure themselves against Reagan — although none has yet found Reagan’s winning blend of charisma, optimism and conservative toughness.
Wednesday’s debate will begin with the Republican field as upset and scrambled as it was in the first debate in August.
Trump — the billionaire and reality-TV star who launched his campaign with a harsh attack on illegal immigrants — is still in the lead. Former Florida governor Jeb Bush, whose famous family name and huge fundraising made him an early favorite, still is not. In fact, since the last debate, Bush has fallen into the single digits in many polls.
Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker, New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie and Sen. Rand Paul (Ky.) have also seen their support decline. In recent polls, all three were below 5 percent. Earlier Wednesday — in an attempt to grab the spotlight before the debate began — Paul went to a shooting range and blasted a few boxes of paper that he said contained the voluminous U.S. tax code. Earlier in this campaign, Paul also set the tax code on fire and cut it up with a chain saw.
The only candidates who have prospered are the outsiders, who say their lack of political experience shows they can govern without owing anyone a favor. Along with Trump and Fiorina, retired neurosurgeon Ben Carson has surged to 20 percent or more in some polls, making him a solid second.
The 11 candidates in the main debate will be Trump, Carson, Bush, Paul, Christie, Walker, Fiorina, Sen. Marco Rubio (Fla.), Sen. Ted Cruz (Tex.), former Arkansas governor Mike Huckabee and Ohio Gov. John Kasich.
The professional politicians in that group — and many in the GOP establishment — hope that this debate will expose the outsider candidates as neophytes who are in over their heads. One way that might happen is with questions about foreign policy: In the past, both Trump and Carson have been confounded by questions about the major actors and running conflicts in the Middle East.
One of the co-moderators for the event is Hugh Hewitt, a conservative radio host based in Orange County radio, who was the interviewer who stumped Trump and Carson. But a radio show, even a popular one, is not a debate.
“If this isn’t the moment to finally get serious, when the hell will it be?” Sen. Lindsey O. Graham (S.C.), another Republican presidential contender, asked in an interview with the Post on Tuesday. “Is the next time we get serious about foreign policy going to be when we get attacked? Everybody criticizes Barack Obama’s foreign policy, everybody knows he has no strategy in Iraq and Syria, but we need something specific to replace that. If we don’t hear that from the candidates, this week will have been a waste of time.”
Graham, however, won’t get to confront Trump or Carson about foreign policy in person since he is on the undercard. That event will make its own, odd kind of history: It will be the first-ever televised major-party debate in which none of the candidates (according to CNN’s average of recent polls) is above 1 percent.
The last undercard had seven candidates. But three are gone now: Fiorina was promoted. Former Texas governor Rick Perry dropped out. And former Virginia governor Jim Gilmore didn’t make the cut: He needed to average 1 percent in any three recent polls. He couldn’t.
But, Gilmore says, he will be offering his responses anyway on Twitter and Facebook as the debates go on.