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The GOP debate: What to expect and not expect from Republican candidates

The top 10 Republican candidates will get a chance to make a strong first impression in front of a wider audience during Thursday's presidential debate.
/ Source: TODAY

The top 10 Republican candidates will finally get a chance to make a strong first impression in front of a wide audience during Thursday’s presidential debate.

“You don’t get a second chance. This is a big night. So I think these candidates need to be very careful not to try to be overly entertaining because then they may diminish themselves,” said Chuck Todd, political director for NBC News.

Todd said that while many people in the public may have “seen little snippets" of the candidates in the news or on social media, the debate will provide the first opportunity to see something more substantial.

All eyes will be on Donald Trump, the candidate running in polls far ahead the 16 other Republican candidates. Only the top 10 hopefuls will be featured in the prime-time debate, and many people will tune in to see if Trump can demonstrate more substance than his usual sizzle.

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Trump has repeatedly said he has no plans to go on the attack unless others strike first. Debate organizers may have have other plans for the candidates.

“Obviously, the moderators are going to want to get them to engage,” Todd said, adding that could be the true test for Trump.

“Can Donald Trump go to hours in this new Clark Kent persona that he’s had over the last few days or does he come out swinging, once he’s invited to do it,” Todd said.

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With Trump polling high above his rivals, “he’s got a low bar to exceed,” Todd said.

“If he doesn’t look as crazy as the media and his opponents have painted him, then people are going to say, ‘Wow, Donald Trump looked pretty reasonable,’” Todd said. “He doesn’t have much to prove.”

But Trump can’t come off as too aloof either.

“One of the reasons he’s skyrocketed is that he’s been willing to tell it like it is, so I don’t think he can be overly reserved either,” he said. “He’s going to have to give his people a little bit of the trump that they’ve been excited to see.”