CLEVELAND — After months of fine-tuning their pitches, the two Texans running for president will have the highest-profile opportunity yet Thursday to prove they belong in the White House.
However, U.S. Sen. Ted Cruz and former Gov. Rick Perry won't share the same stage as they descend upon the Quicken Loans Arena here for the first Republican presidential debates of the 2016 cycle. Perry narrowly missed the cutoff for a prime-time debate at 8 p.m., meaning he will participate in a lower-profile forum four hours earlier with six other hopefuls. Cruz, meanwhile, secured a spot in the main event with the nine other top-polling candidates.
Here are five things we're looking out for as the two Texans prepare to make their debuts on the 2016 debate stage:
Will either be affected by the Trump factor?
Ahead of Thursday night, many campaigns have been preparing for the wild card that is Donald Trump, the bombastic billionaire whose candidacy has scrambled the GOP field. An adviser to Ohio Gov. John Kasich recently suggested getting ready for a debate with Trump was like participating in a NASCAR race knowing one of the drivers was drunk.
For the two Texans, though, Trump could be largely inconsequential. For starters, Perry will not even appear on the same stage as Trump, who as the national polling leader will be front and center in the prime-time event. That’s despite Perry’s weeks-long effort to grab the national spotlight by painting Trump as a danger to the GOP.
Cruz, on the other hand, has avoided Trump’s unpredictable wrath by lavishing praise on him and swearing off “Republican-on-Republican violence.” Still, Trump is seen as siphoning off some of Cruz’s anti-establishment support, and Cleveland could provide an opportunity for the senator to snatch at least some of it back.
“He is the conservative fighter on the stage, but does he get the time to make that case?” asked Brendan Steinhauser, a GOP strategist based in Austin. "Can he show he can be the vessel for all the frustration out there that’s going to Donald Trump?"
How does Cruz handle high expectations for his debate skills?
As a former star on the college debate circuit and the onetime solicitor general of Texas, Cruz's reputation as a master of argument precedes him heading into Thursday. Add to the mix Cruz's confrontational style, especially with other Republicans, and it's hard to blame political observers for anticipating a strong performance by him on any primary debate stage.
"The expectations are high," said Matt Mackowiak, an Austin-based Republican strategist. "If he does well, that's what people are going to expect."
Steinhauser suggested Cruz has never cracked under the pressure of those kind of expectations, and Cleveland will not be any different.
“He’s just so good. He’s never shown any weakness on the stage like that,” said Steinhauser, who helped get Cruz elected to the Senate while working for the conservative group FreedomWorks. “Sure, his expectations are higher, but it’s not a problem.”
Is there a silver lining to Perry's failure to make the prime-time debate?
As the top-polling candidate in the lower-tier debate, Perry faces a peculiar set of expectations Thursday evening. Brandon Rottinghaus, a political science professor at the University of Houston, likened the former governor’s position to being the “NIT leader,” a reference to the second-tier college basketball tournament.
Missing the cut for the prime-time debate was no doubt a disappointment for Perry, who has premised his 2016 campaign on atoning for his cringe-worthy performances four years ago. But the undercard event could prove to be a silver lining, providing Perry a forum to show how he has improved without having to worry about the high expectations or potential volatility of the top-tier debate.
“This might end up being a blessing in disguise in some way because he can still get his points across, not have to deal with Trump,” Mackowiak said.
Given the lower expectations for those who did not make the top 10, a decent-to-strong performance in the undercard event could mean more for Perry than a weak-to-decent showing. How he emerges from Cleveland will matter: Eligibility for the next debate, hosted by CNN on Sept. 16 in California, will also be based on national polling.
Will either Texan find targets — or be the targeted?
Cruz has spent his summer on the offensive against allegedly weak-kneed Republicans, picking fights with everyone from Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell to veteran GOP strategist Karl Rove. He has also sharpened his contrasts with his 2016 opponents, especially former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush, whom he has long alluded to as insufficiently conservative.
"He’s really good at criticizing people without mentioning them specifically," Mackowiak said. "So the question is, does he really make it specific and mention anyone in particular?"
Perry, by contrast, has few beefs with his fellow debaters. In fact, he will be in relatively friendly company: He likes former Hewlett-Packard CEO Carly Fiorina so much that he has floated her as a running mate, he regularly compliments Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal and his state’s economy in stump speeches, and as a fellow veteran, U.S. Sen. Lindsey Graham of South Carolina has drawn nothing but praise from the former governor.
That leaves open the opportunity that if Perry goes on the offensive, it will be against a candidate on the later stage.
“The two-tiered structural debate provides an opportunity for Perry to debate upwards, not downwards,” Rottinghaus said. “I think Perry is going to act like he’s in the prime-time debate.”
Will the first debate move the needle for either Texan?
This point in August is typically an important checkpoint for Republicans eying the White House. The field tends to have taken shape by the end of the summer, and it's usually when the now-defunct Iowa Straw Poll is held, offering a snapshot of which candidates are best organized in the first-in-the-country caucus state.
In the days after Cleveland, both Cruz and Perry will address conservative activists at RedState Gathering in Atlanta, another high-profile opportunity to orient their campaigns heading into the fall. After RedState Gathering, Perry heads to early-voting Iowa — a state critical to his path to the White House — while Cruz embarks on a weeklong tour of the South in an effort to get ahead of other candidates who could do well in the so-called "SEC primary."
While there are 11 more GOP debates to come, the Cleveland events could be the most critical to shaping perceptions of where each candidates stands now that the field is settled.
"I just think Cruz could very well catch fire with a little bit of luck and a good performance," Steinhauser said, adding that the senator has a "real shot if he can get those Trump votes and electrify people in Iowa."
Perry, on the other hand, "just has a tougher hill to climb," Steinhauser added. He’s repairing the brand and he’s reminding people why they like him."
Disclosure: The University of Houston has been a corporate sponsor of The Texas Tribune. A complete list of Tribune donors and sponsors can be viewed here.