It's time to admit that we're all stumped by Trump.
Maybe he decides to play nice during Thursday night's Republican presidential debate - a frontrunner acting . . . well, presidential.
Or, loving as he does the spotlight and klieg lights, Trump gives what at least some portion of the GOP electorate craves: a world-class temper tantrum.
Bottom line: who knows?
This much we can be certain of. This first big debate of the 2016 presidential season won't be the same as the one that kicked off the process for Republicans four years ago.
That would be the June 13, 2011, gathering at Saint Anselm College in Manchester, N.H. Yes, there was a debate five weeks earlier in Greenville, S.C. But the June 13 debate was the first to include Mitt Romney, the party's frontrunner (here's the video and some post-debate analysis).
There are two things about the St Anselm debate worth keeping in mind while watching this current batch of candidates go at it:
1) The format and questions;
2) How the rest of the field played off the frontrunner.
Let's begin with the questions.
For that 2011 debate, CNN went with a mixed format - some questions asked by moderator John King; others asked by audience members.
As a result, it was a debate not well tailored to a Republican viewing audience. Little time was devoted to foreign policy, other than a question about Afghanistan. But Newt Gingrich was asked about NASA's future. Toss in a few goofy moments from King - asking Michele Bachmann if she preferred Elvis or Johnny Cash; Ron Paul if he were an iPhone of Blackberry man - and it wasn't the same tight script we should expect from the Fox News brain trust.
Speaking of whom, what do we think is on their mind? My guess is much of what's been driving the network's programming of late.
1) The Iran nuclear deal
2) Planned parenthood
3) Kate Steinle's death and city sanctuary policy
4) Benghazi/IRS/congressional investigations
5) Immigration reform
6) Qualifications for Supreme Court justices
7) Changing cultural values
8) The GOP's big tent/little tent conundrum
9) Their thought on the GOP Congress
10) Life with or without Trump
Which leads us to the second big difference then and now: this time around, what likely will be a greater focus on the statistical frontrunner.
In 2011, the potential existed for debate fireworks, at Mitt Romney's expense. But it didn't happen, because one candidate pulled his punches.
On the Sunday before the Saint Anselm debate, Tim Pawlenty went on Fox News Sunday and launched this salvo at Romney:
Well, you don't have to take my word for it. You can take President Obama's word for it. President Obama said that he designed Obamacare after Romneycare and basically made it Obamneycare. And so, we now have the same features essentially the same features. The president's own words is that he patterned in large measure Obamacare after what happened in Massachusetts. And what I don't understand is they both continue to defend it.
But three days later, at the debate, Pawlenty went soft:
Well, the issue that was raised in a question from a reporter was, what are the similarities between the two? And I just cited President Obama's own words that he looked to Massachusetts as a blueprint or a guide when he designed Obamacare.
Given a second chance to explain why he wouldn't say "Obamneycare" in Romney's presence, Pawlenty made matters worse:
It President Obama is is the person who I quoted in saying he looked to Massachusetts for designing his program. He's the one who said it's a blueprint and that he merged the two programs. And so using the term "Obamneycare" was a reflection of the president's comments that he designed Obamacare on the Massachusetts health care plan.
That's the closest anyone came to going after the frontrunner that night. Rest assured that someone will go after Trump on Thursday - be it provoked or unprovoked on The Donald's part.
A final note about the first big debate of 2011: it featured seven candidates, not ten. The qualifying criteria were a minimum of 2% in at least three national polls (ABC, AP, Bloomberg, CBS, CNN, FOX, Gallup, The Los Angeles Times, Marist, McClatchy, NBC, Newsweek, Pew, Quinnipiac, Reuters, USA Today and Time) and at least 2% in the University of New Hampshire Survey Center's polling.
The big loser that night? Pawlenty, who was out of the race two months later after a disappointing third in the Ames, Iowa straw poll.
And the night's big winner? Probably Bachmann, whose strong performance had some suggesting the Minnesota congresswoman was ready for prime time.
Then again, Bachmann's campaign didn't last past the fourth day of 2012. So perhaps, while we obsess over what Trump may or may not do on Thursday night, we need to take a step back, reflect on what happened in 2011 once the candidates started to gather, and start downplaying the importance of this first debate.
• 07/29/15: Hillary's Very Brady Problem
• 07/15/15: Bracketing The GOP'S Sweet Sixteen
• 07/10/15: Hillary And The Media: No Mutual Admiration, But Mutually Beneficial?
• 07/08/15: The Sixties . . . In 2016?
• 07/03/15: Four 4th Observations
• 07/02/15: Should Jeb Play A Trump Card?
• 07/01/15: Christie Almighty?
• 06/15/15: Did Hillary Flunk A History Lesson?
• 06/11/15: Thursday Candidates Quiz
• 06/10/15: First Best Second Choice
• 06/08/15: Game of Inches
• 06/03/15: The Power Of Narrative Politics
• 06/01/15: Sorting The Republicans' 2016 Kingdom
• 05/28/15: To Command Without Having Served
• 05/21/15: 2016: Do Looks Matter?
• 05/15/15: John Bolton's Swan Song
Reprinted from Forbes.com