CLEVELAND, Ohio — Even though all of the top Republican hopefuls will share a stage here for the first time Thursday, GOP strategist Karl Rove told a packed house on Wednesday night that “this is not a debate.”
“Let’s be clear,” said Rove, the onetime senior adviser and deputy chief of staff for former President George W. Bush who is now. “This is a series of 10 sequential news conferences, masquerading as a debate.”
“Let’s not kid ourselves. Nothing definitive will be settled tomorrow night,” Rove said, adding that there would still be “a debate about the debate during the debate on social networks.”
With a crowd of donors filling a 200-seat fundraiser for three Northeast Ohio colleges, Rove talked about the logistical challenges posed by the sprawling, 10-candidate cast of would-be nominees. He discussed Democratic presidential front-runner Hillary Clinton’s recent stumbles. And he weighed in on current GOP front-runner Donald Trump, who will take center stage in Cleveland on Thursday based on his top position in all recent national polls.
“He’s done a better job than I’d expected in the last month of improving his numbers,” Rove said of the billionaire real-estate mogul and television personality. “He’s a celebrity. He knows how to do it, and the format’s going to work for him. He understands new media.”
Rove was more sceptical, however, that Trump’s surge could last. He said Trump was drawing support from “Republicans who are so furious with Obama they just want to blow it all up. … The question is, how durable is that?”
Trump has openly floated the possibility of running as a third-party candidate if Republicans are not “fair” to his candidacy. And he has broad support across the Republican ideological spectrum.
Though he wasn’t asked about Trump specifically, Rove discussed the possibility of an independent candidate emerging in 2016.
“It’s a possibility. And if it is, the Democrats will win. And that’s not a cheery thought,” Rove said.
Rove spoke a day ahead of a packed day in Cleveland. Because of the large 2016 Republican presidential field that features 17 candidates, Fox News, which is sponsoring the first debate, said in May that it would limit participation in the opening debate to candidates polling in the top 10 of an average five recent national polls.
The format has drawn considerable scrutiny from political observers and even some of the candidates themselves. The network later added an additional, earlier forum for candidates who didn’t qualify for the main debate, but still appear “consistently” in national polling.
Rove, credited by George W. Bush as the architect of his 2004 presidential victory, was brought to Cleveland by programs at three universities to offer tips on what viewers should look for when the action begins Thursday at the Quicken Loans Arena.
Rove estimated that each candidate would have at most 10 minutes to speak.
“This is: How do you say something in a minute? What are our three points for the entire evening? What will we say when we get asked about the Iran deal?” Rove said.
“Does the candidate have two to three points in their mind they can drive home? Do they do things in a way that seems authentic? Can people see the candidate in the Oval Office?”
Rove also spoke briefly on the Democratic field, saying he believed the former Secretary of State Clinton would likely be the nominee.
“But it ain’t gonna be pretty,” he said.
“She’s dropping in the polls,” Rove added. “And they’re all self-inflicted wounds.”
Taylor Hall is a reporter in Washington, DC. She covers business and national security for Medill News Service
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