With the first Republican presidential primary debate only a week and a half away, one can’t help but sense a rising level of fear from the party establishment. And who can blame them? All their primary polls are being led by a buffoonish vulgarian who is not only scorned by strong majorities of Americans, but happens to be setting out to alienate the constituency Republicans most need to court if they’re going to win the White House. The rest of the field is a chaotic mess of 15 other candidates, none of whom has managed to perform up to expectations in any area apart from raising money.

And it could all come to a head next Thursday in Cleveland — or maybe before.

Today, RNC communications director Sean Spicer took to the pages of the Wall Street Journal to proclaim that the debates are going to be great this time around, mostly because there are fewer of them than in previous years. His defense of the rule limiting the debate to the 10 top performers in polls (the other six will appear in the political equivalent of the third-place match at the end of the World Cup, the one no one cares about) is reasonable enough; there may be no good way to contain the number of participants. But that doesn’t mean it might not still be a disaster.

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Whatever you think of Donald Trump, he’s now the hub around which the race revolves, and that only makes the rest of the candidates’ problem more acute. It’s hard enough to get noticed when you have 15 competitors, but when one of them soaks up so media attention, it becomes even harder. All that pushes candidates — at the debates, and elsewhere — to do something, anything, to get some notice.

Attacking Trump is one logical way to try, but only a couple of candidates have stepped up to take that opportunity. Rick Perry has called Trump a “cancer on conservatism,” and Lindsey Graham has called him a “jackass,” but so far, neither one seems to have gotten much out of it. Perry is averaging 2.2 percent in the polls, while Graham pulls in an impressive 0.3 percent. In the coming days, candidates will have a strong incentive to say something outrageous. Case in point: Mike Huckabee made a play for the lunatic vote by saying that the deal to restrict Iran’s nuclear program “will take the Israelis and march them to the door of the oven.”

I guess only a leader of Barack Obama’s stature could simultaneously be Neville Chamberlain and Adolf Hitler.

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So what’s going to happen on that debate stage? Even ten candidates is a huge number, and that means that each candidate is only going to get a few minutes to talk. Any of them who prepares by saying, “I’ll just make the case for why I’m the best choice, and the voters will understand,” isn’t doing his job. Instead, they’ll come armed with pre-written quips they hope will get some more notice, and the more negative they are, the better.

That may not be a good thing, but the candidates know how this game is played. What really matters isn’t so much the relatively small audience that will tune in to the actual debate, but the much larger aggregate of voters who will hear about it later, through news articles and TV stories and snippets played and replayed in the days that follow. An insightful analysis of a critical policy issue is far less likely to become the moment reporters point to than a vicious attack.

The debate could play out in a number of ways: candidates could attack Trump, or a few might go after Jeb Bush, hoping to become the alternative to the closest thing the race has to a non-Trump frontrunner, or something else entirely might occur. But if all of them are looking for someone to strike at, it could end up being a demolition derby — fun to watch, but not exactly the thing to inspire faith in the participants. And with so many candidates to choose from and so little time for each, the chances of any one breaking out with a terrific performance are low.

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A primary campaign with this many candidates is unprecedented, so no one knows for sure how this race will look a month or six months from now. But when Sean Spicer says the Republican Party has “an abundance of riches,” he sounds a lot like someone trying to make the best of what he knows is a dangerous situation. With so many candidates scoring so low and getting increasingly desperate to find a way to move up, the possibility of ugliness and chaos increases dramatically. Which is good for those of us in the media hoping for an entertaining show, and good for Democrats hoping Republicans will tear each other to pieces. But not so good for the GOP.

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