Donald Trump
Photograph by Charlie Leight — Getty Images
By Mary Civiello
August 5, 2015

In what’s expected to be the most anticipated 2016 election event so far, the GOP presidential debate on Thursday night could mark a turning point for candidates vying for their party’s nomination for the U.S. presidency. With 10 candidates — including the unapologetically outspoken Donald Trump— appearing in the public showdown, anything could happen. Candidates are doing what candidates have always done — they’re studying briefing books, rehearsing messages, fielding questions and trying to anticipate on stage dynamics.

But what will it take to counter The Donald? Former U.S. House speaker Newt Gingrich recently said Trump is “very aggressive by nature and prepared to say virtually anything. It’s like dealing with nitroglycerin.”

Here are three ways any leader in the spotlight should prepare to jump into the ring with an unpredictable opponent like Trump.

Coin a memorable phrase

Developing and delivering a memorable message is as important as it is challenging. It involves coming up with an idea that resonates; that has a fresh and catchy line — what one of the candidate’s coaches called “sayables.”

That means less is more. Don’t ramble, as attention spans are short. And with less than 10 minutes per candidate, every minute counts. Of course, all of this involves preparation and many candidates don’t want to sound programmed, especially when up against a candidate such as Trump who is anything but.

Former Florida governor Jeb Bush is said to have shunned coaching until he stumbled over a question about the Iraq war during a television interview. Now, he’s leaning heavily on advisers polishing what he says and how he says it. Hopefully, Bush and other candidates are rehearsing to sound unrehearsed. One’s tone of voice, pauses and facial expressions should all say, ‘I just thought of this’ rather than ‘I am READING this.’

Counter potential attacks

The right kind of preparation is also the solution for handling challenging questions as well as personal attacks. To buy time, well-advised candidates may reframe questions, while think of other questions that helps them communicate their key message quickly. Since Trump could throw anything against the wall, including labels and accusations, insiders say look for Ted Cruz and Ben Carson, in particular, to try to steer or “bridge” to subjects like national security, where Trump is thought to be unprepared. Nonetheless, candidates may try to divert Trump’s attention to other candidates on stage!

Everyone who is well prepared will know to keep their game face whether or not they are on the receiving end. Advisers for Bush and Scott Walker, who are expected to stand on both sides of Trump in camera range say they’re confident their candidates will not scowl or guffaw in reaction to anything Trump says, but rather will seek opportunities to look and sound more presidential.

Don’t try to out trump a Trump

Behind the scenes, it’s clear the candidates have been preparing a Trump strategy. Both Rand Paul and Scott Walker are said to have been sparring with Trump pretenders. Meanwhile, other candidates have been publicly sparring with Trump, labeling the real estate mogul everything from a rattlesnake to a drunk NASCAR driver.

Although entertaining, it’s hard not to wonder if it’s even wise to pay Trump any attention? In response to Trump’s suggestion that Rick Perry didn’t have the energy to be president, the Texas governor fired back ” Let’s get a pull up bar out there and see who can do the most pull ups”.

Perhaps best prepared to tangle with Trump is Ted Cruz, who was a champion debater while at Princeton University. Chris Christie may most naturally able to, but that is a double-edged sword for the New Jersey governor who has been dialing back his bare-fisted tendencies knowing it doesn’t play as well west of the Garden State.

In general, debate veterans warn against trying to trump Trump on stage:”You only attack the king if you can kill him; otherwise you leave him alone, because the king will kill you,” says Frank Luntz, a Republican pollster.

In fact, over the weekend, Bush defended Trump against critics, saying he was striking a chord with disillusioned voters. Meanwhile, Trump has been on the quieter side over the past few days. When asked how he’d advise candidates to handle him, Trump sighed, saying he was a pretty nice guy and just wanted to get his views out there.

The Trump nitroglycerin just might not result in the explosives people expect Thursday night, so candidates might be best advised to focus more on a reasoned message that people will remember in the voting booth.

Mary Civiello is president of Civiello Communications Group.

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