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In this June 16, 2015 file photo, Donald Trump announces he will run for president of the United States, in the lobby of Trump Tower in New York. Many observers are keen to see how Mr. Trump performs in a debate setting on Thursday night.

Richard Drew/The Associated Press

Here on New Hampshire's Maine border, the local Donald Trump committee is planning a debate-viewing party Thursday night at the Lobster Trap restaurant while Mr. Trump and nine Republican rivals have their first nationally televised formal confrontation.

Mr. Trump is picking up the cost for the pizza and the wings but not for the drinks. It's a cash bar.

Way over on the Vermont border, at the other end of the state – the politically obsessed site of the first American presidential primary – Jane and Jack DeGange are preparing to continue the decades-long partisan debate that has characterized their 50-year marriage.

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"If I can bring myself to watch these guys," says Mrs. DeGange, who has voted for a Democrat in every presidential election since John Kennedy's race in 1960, "I'll consider it nothing more than comic relief."

Not so for her husband, a devout Republican who voted for Richard Nixon in 1960 and again in 1968 and 1972. "It may be early in the process," says Mr. DeGange, "but I'm looking at three or four of them." There will, however, be far more than three or four contenders on the Cleveland stage.

In ground rules that from the start were certain to alienate a large number of Republicans – thirsty to reclaim the White House after more than six years of Barack Obama –the Fox television network confined the opening debate to the top 10 contenders, measured by poll results. That leaves seven of the 17 candidates in the Internet-age equivalent of a television test pattern. They're off the air, though they're invited to a pre-debate session. Think of them as Pearl Jam and the Smashing Pumpkins in 1991, when the two bands were the opening act for the Red Hot Chili Peppers.

Thursday night's session provides an important glimpse into the Republican race, so different from the Democratic contest dominated by former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton.

The main debate includes Governors Chris Christie of New Jersey and John Kasich of Ohio, both at 3 per cent in the Fox calculation, but leaves out former senator Rick Santorum of Pennsylvania, whose 2012 victory in Iowa and 11 state primaries made him the runner up to Mitt Romney for the nomination. Like the poll ratings of other well-known Republicans, including former governor Rick Perry of Texas, Mr. Santorum's poll numbers are well within the margin of error of many of the contenders invited to the main event.

The exclusion of the bottom seven seems more the result of caprice than calculation. But it stands as a symbol of the difficulty Republicans will have choosing among their contenders, and the danger that no one candidate will emerge from such a morass.

For those invited to the prime-time session, the stakes are high.

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Each knows he must do something to break away from the pack. Each knows he has to differentiate himself from Mr. Trump, who leads the polls nationwide, without bringing more attention to the billionaire businessman or alienating his formidable group of supporters. Each knows that the merest stumble, like the one Mr. Perry made in 2011 when he couldn't recall the name of a federal agency he wanted to eliminate, or the merest off-putting gesture, like President George H.W. Bush's exasperated glimpse at his watch in the 1992 debate with Bill Clinton, could be politically fatal.

The first principle for this debate: Make no mistakes. The second: Make an impression.

What each contender must set out to do

  • Former governor Jeb Bush of Florida: Display a separate identity from the 41st and 43rd presidents even as he shows the probity and perspective that comes with being in a legacy family rivaling the Adamses, Roosevelts and Kennedys.
  • Retired surgeon Ben Carson: Show political sophistication that complements his stirring style of speech and remarkable up-from-poverty life story.
  • Mr. Christie of New Jersey: Convey cool mastery of the issues without bombast and, unlike his 2012 national convention appearance, assure voters the election is about them and not about him.
  • Senator Ted Cruz of Texas: Rally his religious-conservative supporters in a way that does not alienate more moderate Republicans.
  • Mr. Kasich of Ohio: Project the competence and experience that comes from governing a vital state and from heading the budget committee in Congress, while not putting off committed conservatives skeptical of his right-wing bona fides.
  • Former governor of Arkansas Mike Huckabee: Demonstrate that his religious-based conviction and passion can be harnessed for governance and not merely for commercial profit after the election.
  • Senator Rand Paul of Kentucky: Speak in an idiom that attracts supporters of his libertarian father, Ron Paul, and reassures voters that his views won’t produce a catastrophic defeat in a general election, where independents and moderates will be vital.
  • Senator Marco Rubio: Appear more like the young John Kennedy (full of vigor and inspiring ideas) rather than an upstart (not mature enough for national office and not patient enough to wait his turn).
  • Mr. Trump: Appear thoughtful in his views, respectful in his remarks, and above all presidential in his bearing.
  • Governor Scott Walker of Wisconsin: Repeat his bravura performance in Iowa, which catapulted him into the front ranks of Republican contenders, and assure voters he won’t alter his positions as the campaign continues.

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