Five questions tonight’s GOP debate may answer

Tonight’s debate among Republican presidential candidates is a benchmark in the 2016 race for the White House, but how helpful will it be for voters who want to make educated and informed decisions when they cast their ballots?

The 2016 election is more than a year away – a virtual eternity in politics, so the landscape may look much different when the campaign heats up and the general public begins paying attention.

Those who do choose to watch tonight’s debate are unlikely to learn substantial information about the candidates and their agendas. With 10 candidates on stage for two hours and with time needed for the panelists to ask questions, each presidential hopeful will be lucky to get 10 minutes of airtime – hardly ample time to make a convincing case for the Oval Office.

But even if the debate is light on substance and policy, it may very well provide some early clues to how the race will unfold. Here are five questions that tonight’s event may answer:

1. What tone will Donald Trump take with his opponents?

In the very early stages of the campaign, Trump has risen to the top of the polls. Will he try to further separate himself from the pack by blasting the other candidates? Or will he try to build broader support as a step toward becoming the GOP’s consensus candidate in 2016? The path he chooses could be an indication of what strategy he plans to use the capture the Republican nomination.

2. What tone will the other candidates take with Trump?

Initially, GOP candidates did not take Trump as seriously as they should have and did not spend much time opining on what The Donald said and did. But they became more attentive and critical as Trump rose to the top of the polls and caused problems for the GOP establishment with his frank comments and outspoken nature. Will the other candidates attempt to use the debate to reveal Trump’s shortcomings and weaken his position so he becomes less of factor in the race?

3. Will POTUS remain Target #1?

Since he first ran for president in 2008, Barack Obama has been a virtual punching bag for the Republican Party. Running against Obama and his policies has been a popular and often successful strategy for GOP candidates of all levels.  If the president is the primary target during the debate, it could indicate that Republicans will continue to run against him in 2016 even though his name will not be on the ballot.

4. Is Hillary Clinton’s nomination inevitable?

While Hillary Clinton has long been the frontrunner for the Democratic nomination, concerns are emerging about her strength as a candidate. The former Secretary of State has been slipping in the polls as controversies over her emails, Benghazi and the Clinton Foundation refuse to go away. Meanwhile, U.S. Sen. Bernie Sanders has been building support among Democrats, and Vice President Joe Biden is toying with the idea of throwing his hat into the ring. If Clinton is the main target of the GOP candidates during the debate, it will suggest that they do not expect any other Democrat to derail her road to the nomination – a left-handed compliment to the strength of her candidacy.

5. What can be learned from what is not said?

Candidates of both parties walk slippery slopes during the primary season. They must be liberal enough, or conservative enough, to appeal to hardcore left and right voters, who tend to come out in large numbers in primary elections. At the same time, they risk the danger of alienating moderate voters if they are too extreme. The current GOP field has no shortage of candidates with strong opinions. If they voice those opinions loudly during the debate, they are sending a sign that they believe they can win without toning down their words.

Of course, the candidates and the pundits will put their own spin on the campaign in the weeks and months ahead, but one familiar voice will be missing. After 16 years of comedy and commentary as host of The Daily Show, Jon Stewart is signing off with his final program. He no doubt could help voters find a few more lessons from the campaign benchmark taking place tonight.

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