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Why the first Republican presidential debate matters

People will be watching, because, well, Trump. But beyond that, Thursday's Republican presidential debates are meaningful – perhaps even more so than the early Election 2012 versions – for several reasons.

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    A worker cleans the sidewalk in front of the Quicken Loans Arena in Cleveland Wednesday before Thursday's first Republican presidential debate being held at the arena.
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It’s summer. People are on vacation. The Iowa caucuses and New Hampshire primary are months away. So what does it really matter that Republican presidential candidates are gathering for their first formal debate on Thursday night?

It matters plenty, actually, for the political process that will ultimately result in a nominee. In fact, the stakes for candidates may be higher than they were at this stage of the 2012 election cycle.

The 10-candidate debate in Cleveland will be broadcast by Fox News at 9 p.m., plus a warmup event – a showcase at 5 p.m. for the other seven declared candidates, who weren’t polling high enough to make the cut.

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Here’s why it matters, maybe more than the early stage of the campaign four years ago:

No clear front runner. OK, there’s Donald Trump leading the latest polls. There isn’t the kind of heir apparent that the 2012 race featured in Mitt Romney. The former Massachusetts governor was hardly a shoo-in for the nomination, but he had been the runner-up in the previous cycle, had carefully positioned himself, and was ready to roll. Roll he did, albeit slowly, to capture the nomination. Mr. Trump’s staying power is uncertain. And the fact that former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush is lagging behind Trump shows he still has a deal to close with the party base. The playing field is pretty open.

Fewer chances to grab the spotlight. “There are fewer debates” for the primary season this time around, says Lilly Goren, a political scientist at Carroll University in Waukesha, Wis. That’s because Republican Party leaders decided that the numerous debates of 2012 dished up sound bites that weren’t always flattering to the party brand or their eventual nominee. As the saying goes, “Nothing to see here. Move along.” (Except now the candidates have all the more incentive to make the most of the debate time they do get.)

No incumbent. With Barack Obama poised to leave office, 2016 is arguably a riper opportunity for Republicans to try to capture the White House. It still won’t be easy, thanks to a generally declining unemployment rate and an electorate where Latinos (who have generally been voting Democratic) make up a rising share of the electorate.

More candidates. Related at least partly to the opening in the Oval Office, an unusually high number of candidates (17 to date) have joined the fray. This isn’t what the party insiders were angling for, and it should create some interesting dynamics as each one struggles for recognition. “The challenge for just about every candidate is that they’re not that well known,” even among the Republican faithful, says Stefan Hankin, president of Lincoln Park Strategies, a Washington firm that does politics-related research on public opinion.

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“You’ve got to start laying the groundwork for moving up into the top tier of candidates,” Mr. Hankin says. The interesting question will be how candidates try to do that.

The impact of the debates will be seen not so much in an overall performance, as seen by the TV audience, as in the spins and sound bites that ripple to the wider public through news headlines and social media after the fact.

If some things have changed since 2012, other important dynamics are still in place.

The party is still split, with an establishment and a tea party wing pushing for purer conservative policies. Some of the faces have changed. Sen. Ted Cruz of Texas and Gov. Scott Walker of Wisconsin will be competing on stage for that tea party vote at 9 p.m., while two prominent hopefuls from the 2012 campaign (Rick Santorum and Rick Perry) didn’t make the cut and are relegated to the early-evening debate.

Other truisms that persist: The party will rally around the eventual nominee, political scientists predict. That nominee will probably make a strategic pivot, from focusing on shoring up the base in primaries to reaching moderate swing voters in the general election campaign.

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