For first debate, how do you solve a problem like Donald Trump?

How will the other candidates handle wild card Donald Trump at tonight's Republican presidential debate in Cleveland?

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

Before the highly-anticipated first GOP debate Thursday night in Cleveland, Donald Trump – the party's wild card candidate who has made headlines for his campaign antics, like giving out a rival's phone number, suggesting Mexican immigrants are "rapists" and "criminals," and calling Arizona Sen. John McCain a "dummy" – has promised to be civil.

"I don’t want to attack anybody," Mr. Trump told “Good Morning America" on Wednesday. "I’d rather just discuss the issues."

But, he quickly added, he is prepared to take the gloves off. "If I’m attacked I have to, you know, do something back, but I’d like it to be very civil," he said.

While presidential primary debates are typically the stuff of spectacle and scrutiny, this election cycle is exceptional thanks to the inimitable presence of Trump, the real estate tycoon-turned celebrity TV star-turned presidential contender "whose taste for lacerating his rivals with provocative language has made him the most unpredictable force on a presidential debate stage in years," as The New York Times put it.

"It's like dealing with nitroglycerin," Newt Gingrich famously said, describing Trump.

Which is why the political blogosphere is abuzz, speculating how the other contenders will handle Trump – and how the billionaire businessman with a penchant for running his mouth will handle himself.

Trump practiced his newfound civility by playing down expectations.

"I've never debated before. I'm not a debater," he said during a trip to Scotland last week. "You know these guys debate every night of their life, that's all they do is debate.... I'm sort of the opposite. I have no idea."

According to reports, Trump has eschewed debate prep, planning to do what he does best – speak off the cuff.

"I am who I am," he told reporters last week. "I'll show up, I look forward to it, and that's all I can do. I have no idea how I'll do. Maybe I'll do terribly. Maybe I'll do great."

In the prime-time debate hosted by Fox News, all eyes will be on Trump, who will be at the center of the stage thanks to his unrivaled 23 percent support in the polls. He will be flanked by the nine other candidates who scored the highest in an aggregate of polls: Jeb Bush, Scott Walker, Mike Huckabee, Ben Carson, Ted Cruz, Marco Rubio, Rand Paul, Chris Christie, and John Kasich.

In addition to boning up on Common Core standards and national security policy, the candidates have been hard at work determining how to tackle another problem: Donald Trump.

"Imagine a NASCAR driver mentally preparing for a race knowing one of the drivers will be drunk. That's what prepping for this debate is like," tweeted John Weaver, a top adviser to Ohio Gov. John Kasich.

How do you solve a problem like Donald Trump?

According to reports, many contenders have been preparing an arsenal of tactics. Governor Walker has been testing lines in mock debates, with advisers playing Trump.

Governor Bush, who will be standing next to Trump and likely in the same camera shot, is reportedly practicing stagecraft, masking any signs of disdain or disgust.

Senators Rubio and Cruz, along with retired neurosurgeon Dr. Carson, plan to steer the debate to more serious topics like entitlement reform and national security, in the hopes of leaving Trump out entirely.

And while Trump is the undisputed king of zingers, all the candidates will likely seek opportunities to look and sound more presidential than he does.

But not everyone is wary of Trump.

"It's raw, and I think it's real, and I think that people are upset with government. I think they're upset with both parties.... Donald Trump's tapping into that," Republican National Committee chairman Reince Priebus said on "CBS This Morning" Wednesday.

"I actually think it could be quite good for our party," said Mr. Priebus, "because I think what you're seeing is a lot of people people that were frustrated with politics are saying, 'Well maybe I've got an outlet here.' And if they're coming and tuning into our debate tomorrow night and getting involved in our party, I think that that ultimately could be very helpful."

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