How do you debate someone like Donald Trump?

As GOP presidential hopefuls prepare for the first Republican debate on Thursday, one question is on everyone's mind: how to deal with The Donald. 

Charlie Neibergall/AP/File
Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump speaks in Oskaloosa, Iowa on July 25, 2015.

Donald Trump says he has no plans to tone down his signature tendency to speak his mind unfiltered at the first Republican debate this Thursday. He’ll even go in without notes.

Now, his fellow Republicans need to figure out what to do about that.

"I don't want to be unreal. I want to be me. I have to be me," Mr. Trump said Sunday in an interview with NBC's "Meet the Press." "We have enough of that in Washington with pollsters telling everybody what to say.”

The real-estate mogul, who led the latest NBC News/Wall Street Journal Poll as the first choice for 19 percent of GOP primary voters, told The New York Times that he won’t rely on prepared answers during the Fox News debate, giving him a perceived advantage over his rivals. Meanwhile, his opponents are carefully crafting their debate strategies with The Donald in mind. 

“No one knows how much the moderators are going to ask us about Donald Trump, let alone what Trump is going to say, so the preparations are warped by the Trump factor,” said Ben Carson, who earned the support of 10 percent of voters in the poll, in an interview with the Times. “What most of us will be looking for is any opportunity to turn the conversation into something meaningful, rather than about one man.”

Trump said Sunday that he’s “not looking to take anybody out or be nasty to anybody." But given his history of personal attacks on GOP politicians like former Texas Gov. Rick Perry (“He put glasses on so people will think he’s smart.”) and Sen. John McCain (R) of Arizona (“He’s not a war hero. He’s a war hero because he was captured. I like people who weren’t captured.”), some Republican contenders, such as former Gov. Jeb Bush, report working defenses to ad hominem insults and disengagement strategies into their debate preparation. 

Katie Packer Gage, who was deputy campaign manager for 2012 Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney, told the Los Angeles Times that she would advise top-tier candidates to ignore Trump to the best of their ability and focus on getting their own messages across. 

“As my boyfriend, who grew up on a ranch, says: ‘Never wrestle a pig. You just end up getting dirty and making the pig mad,’” Ms. Gage said. 

However, she suggested, it may be in the best interest of a third-tier candidate to “engage in order to borrow some of the spotlight the media has trained on Trump, especially to sound like a strong, reasonable voice by comparison.”

If one does choose to engage with Trump, University of Michigan debate director Aaron Kall recommends drawing attention to the billionaire’s damaged business relations with brands such as NBCUniversal and Macy’s. 

“Donald Trump's long and storied career as a businessman is one of his major attributes with voters,” Mr. Kall told the Los Angeles Times. “The other candidates would be wise to directly attack Mr. Trump on a subject where he's considered to be extremely strong and experienced.”

Jon Fleischman, founder and publisher of, added that opponents could use Trump’s self-contradicting positions on multiple issues to discredit him.

Regardless of which tactics they choose, the candidates “better have something good ready if they come after Trump,” warns Republican pollster Frank Luntz in a New York Times interview. “You only attack the king if you can kill him; otherwise you leave him alone, because the king will kill you.” 

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