Debates drive polls, not the other way around.   That’s why it was wrong for the Republican National Committee and Fox to average early and volatile polling to decide the ten top candidates for tonight’s debate.   Polls that rotate sixteen ballot choices without any titles such as governor or senator favor the candidates dominating the recent news, especially Donald Trump.   The candidates who did not make the cut each polled, on average, around one or two percent, compared to three percent for Christie (#9) and Kasich (#10).   That’s a trivial difference.  Some candidates staged stunts, others  — like Christie — mounted television ad campaigns, simply to influence these national polls, rather than spending their money and time in the opening primary states.

Instead, I had proposed two equal status debates on consecutive nights, that is, two news cycles.  The first debate would be candidates who polled 2, 4, 6, 8, 10, 12, 14, 16; the second debate, candidates 1, 3, 5, 7, 9, 11, 13, 15.  And long ago, the RNC should have required all candidates to pledge to support the party’s nominee.

The early debate tonight is of lesser status and an awkward time, mid-afternoon here in the West.   Yet, these secondary candidates can benefit from lower expectations and the absence of Donald Trump.  Very quickly, let’s review, alphabetically:

Carly Fiorina.   The only woman, her absence in the top ten is conspicuous.  She effortlessly discusses abortion and can best indict Planned Parenthood without war-on-women baggage.  She is likely to perform best in her debate.  Even if she doesn’t break out, she remains the perennial favorite for vice president, especially if a damaged Hillary is the nominee.

Jim Gilmore.   He was a governor 14 years ago and has done nothing since to bolster a presidential candidacy.   What can he say to convince us we needed Candidate #17?  His late entry was the best argument for having a cut-off deadline for tonight’s debates, not two days ago.

Lindsey Graham.  He will not win the nomination but remains the most folksy and down to earth.  Graham, like John McCain, seems too quick to commit ground troops.   Perhaps Graham can effectively educate that the Iran deal promotes terrorism, an arms race and nuclear proliferation, and it ends the “peace process” and dooms the 2-state solution.   But the South Carolina primary is too far away to keep him viable. 

Bobby Jindal.   In a seven-candidate debate, will his high intelligence and analytical ability draw attention to this current governor?   He and Fiorina are more plausible than Pataki and Santorum, both of whom will not be nominated for president or vice president.

George Pataki.  The former New York governor has been out of office for nearly a decade. If any former governor not running would break a convention deadlock, it would be Purdue University president Mitch Daniels, a brainy, unpretentious conservative.

Rick Perry.  Looking scholarly with his glasses, former Gov. Perry recently said he now can “regurgitate” (his word) from his briefings.  Yet, he is studious and serious, intending to overcome his 2012 disastrous debate performance that still haunts him. It’s hard to imagine what he could say tonight to graduate to the main debate stage next time.  But if someone in the main event falters, perhaps Perry can still make the CNN debate.

Rick Santorum.   A decent man, he along with Michele Bachmann and Herman Cain in 2012 had his fifteen minutes of fame.  While he may campaign hard in Iowa, can we imagine a repeat breakout there, with so much competition on the Christian right?   His blue collar worker populism competes with Huckabee’s pitch; besides,  billionaire Trump upstages as an Archie Bunker populist.

The people who do not see the debates will see news reports or Internet “lifts.”    Exchanging insults with Donald Trump will get instant replay, but the double standard favors Trump.    Insults or anything else – a candidate may rehearse a one liner for tonight, but the best zingers are spontaneous.   That requires quick thinking and risk-taking.   Now, now let’s look (alphabetically) at the top ten.

Jeb Bush.   His name personifies Republican establishment, but what happened to the insurgent vote?  It coalesced around Trump, hurting conservative candidates, thus helping Bush.  From the outset, Bush repeatedly faltered, saying he was his own man and then resurrecting his father’s Old-Boy network, including Jim Baker, whose immediate Israel bashing Bush soon disavowed.   Bush responded clumsily to the predictable Iraq question, and he inexplicably delayed clarification.  Bush thinks aloud while he talks, he misspeaks, and then clarifies.   Instead of going offense on Planned Parenthood, he had to defend his inelegant rhetoric. The pressure is on Bush tonight to move beyond the earnest Boy Scout and, perhaps more importantly, get his act together.

Ben Carson.  Like Ted Cruz, Ben Carson has a solid following among hardcore conservatives and a vast direct mail donor base.   Before Trump entered the race, Carson was the outsider.    Yet, he was judged harshly for policy voids; while Trump can say he was busy making deals, not policy, Carson can’t say he was in surgery.   Don’t underestimate Carson’s potential for intimacy. He can connect.

Chris Christie.  Donald Trump’s insults make supposed bully Gov. Christie look gracious.  Now, he’s telling us that he’s a Catholic who uses condoms.   Meanwhile, his ads stress that he is the only candidate who has prosecuted terrorists.   He’ll need more than that to stand out.

Ted Cruz.  Quick on his feet, accomplished debater Cruz comes across best on paper.    He needs to project his fun side and be less prosecutorial.  Supporters deeply admire his principled candidacy, but he must come across as more than a rigid ideologue.  He’s right that the U.S. Supreme Court same sex marriage decision was incoherent; he’s wrong that it was “some of the darkest 24 hours in our nation’s history.”  He moves too quickly from indignant to angry.  Ted Cruz is articulate, but the social conservative vote remains split.

Mike Huckabee.    Like Santorum, Huckabee is a Christian populist.  And he benefits from his years on Fox television.  He remains an effective and inviting speaker.  His humanity and sincerity come across.  But civil disobedience on same sex marriage will not be enough tonight.  He must move beyond social issues to be considered viable for November.

John Kasich.  Shrewdly delaying his announcement of candidacy, Kasich parlayed that predictable short-term polling bump into the number ten slot.   As governor from Ohio, he offers – as either a presidential or vice presidential nominee – a path to carry this critical state. Kasich could win a formal debate on substance, but this is also about image.  Voters will not elect a policy wonk, so he also needs personality tonight.

Rand Paul.  Students ask me what the “GOP” is?  “The grand old party” is archaic, and the RNC should have long banned it.   Rand offered new constituencies, but then he defensively hassled reporters asking legitimate questions.   Only Donald Trump can do that.   Meanwhile, Ron Paul, now selling doomsday ads for media hucksters, contradicts Rand’s optimism.   Worse, Ron rationalized the Paris terrorism as related to French policies in Algeria sixty years ago, and Ron supports the Iran “deal” that Rand opposes.  In this debate, Rand must prove that he did not peak months ago.  But if Rand does well, will his father find new ways to sabotage him?

Marco Rubio.  Almost alone, Rubio commendably mentions New Economy issues like Uber.  He also could use some of Rand Paul’s issues.  The most glib of the candidates, he sometimes appears programmed, on autopilot.  He needs to pretend to think before he answers, talk slowly and replace perceived immaturity with newly acquired gravitas.  It’s too late to add some gray to his hair, so he should refer to a lot of events that happened before he was born.  He is the least mistake prone, the most likely to make a good impression, and offers the most upward potential.   He’s roughly as intelligent as Cruz but without the sharp edges.

Donald Trump.   How many candidates can he insult within the time limits? Don’t fix it, if it’s not broken, his advisers say, but I think he’ll be nice unless attacked.  He needs some new lines beyond how rich he is.    I sat in the front row when The Donald spoke at Freedom Fest.  It was pure entertainment.  Will he talk seriously tonight? This is his chance to pick one subject, Iran, and hit a home run.  Trump supporters see him as Peter Finch’s (Network) classic “I’m mad as hell and won’t take it anymore.”  If Trump crashes tonight, his poll numbers could persist.

Scott Walker.   His rhetoric  “I’m a new fresh face with big bold ideas” remains stale.   Upon hearing the Supreme Court’s same sex marriage decision, he announced he would champion a constitutional amendment to void it; clearly, instead he should have pivoted to supporting religious freedom of, among others, bakers and florists.  He persists in reminding us that he has won “three elections in four years in a blue state” as if he is talking to PAC donors.   But he is improving rapidly.   And there are rumors he will wear a suit tonight.   To preempt that he is a college drop out, he must impress beyond adequacy.   He has governed effectively in Wisconsin.  Can he appear presidentialtonight?

In the first debate, Fiorina and Jindal have the most upside potential.  In the second debate, Rubio could upstage Bush and Walker.   There also is the possibility that after tonight, the poll numbers could remain about the same.    Don’t be discouraged, though, there is always the possibility that a candidate makes a game-changing blunder.