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Politics & Government

GOP Presidential Candidates Prepare To Face Off In Second Debate

ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:

It is round two for the sprawling Republican presidential field. Fifteen candidates are at the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library in California getting ready to go at it in their second set of debates. NPR national political correspondent Don Gonyea is ready and waiting for the action to begin. Hi, Don.

DON GONYEA, BYLINE: Hey there.

SIEGEL: Let's start with a man who's become the center of gravity in the Republican campaign. Donald J. Trump is the frontrunner in polling. He has earned a spot at center stage, which means he'll likely stay at the center of the action.

GONYEA: Hard to imagine it will be any other way tonight. Recall that Trump, in the last debate - he was battling more with the moderators than he was his opponents, most famously Megyn Kelly of Fox News. This one, expect the attacks to come from those standing center stage with him - a raid to his left and to his right. Take Jeb Bush, for example. For much of the campaign, he has decided he would just ignore Donald Trump. But after the last debate, Bush decided he needed to embrace the mantle of being the anti-Trump. Ignoring Trump clearly wasn't working. He's been more aggressive. Others have been more aggressive. You can look at the remarks other candidates make tonight kind of through a Trump prism. They're either attacking Trump, or they're trying to show how they're not trump.

SIEGEL: Now, once again, this debate will take place in two parts. There's an undercard with just four candidates - the ones who are polling at the bottom and who have literally been judged not ready for primetime - that starts in less than half an hour - and then the main event which will have 11 participants this time, number 11 being Carly Fiorina.

GONYEA: Right. She's the addition. She just barely made it into the top tier. There were originally supposed to be 10 on stage like the last debate. She's here because of her strong performance in the undercard in that first debate. She got a lot of attention, a lot of positive reviews since then. So they've put her on the main stage. Here's what she's been saying lately on the campaign trail to GOP voters. She says, I know I'm in your top three or four or five, but I want you to make me your number one. So she's asking for serious consideration. She has - we should note too that she's been the toughest in terms of her rhetoric when it comes to going after Hillary Clinton. Expect her to do the same thing toward Donald Trump tonight.

SIEGEL: We expect a huge audience tonight, just as there was for the last debate, which set viewing records. CNN's hosting this time around and if anyone out there's been watching CNN recently, you might have gotten a reminder or two about that.

GONYEA: The promos make it look like a political reality show.

SIEGEL: They've been counting down since July. I swear.

GONYEA: Yeah, you know, I've been describing it to people as "Sharknado 2: The Second One" because there's been so much hype. You know, the ad rates they are charging are through the roof. But the moderators are CNN journalist Jake Tapper and Dana Bash. They'll be joined by conservative talk radio host Hugh Hewitt. Hewitt recently had a moment on his radio show with Trump when Trump got confused over some foreign policy questions Hewitt was asking. That led to some bad blood between the two. We'll see how that plays out tonight. But ultimately, the moderators say they're going to encourage the candidates to directly address one another. So it may be a lot more freewheeling than the last one.

SIEGEL: Today, the president of the United States weighed in on the Republican campaign.

GONYEA: He did. And it is, you know, kind of unusual for a president to go down this path at this stage of a campaign to replace him. But President Obama has been the target of repeated GOP attacks. They say he has made America weak. They say that he has been a weak, weak leader, and those are some of the mild things they say about him. But at an event here in D.C. today, he was asked a question about the economy, and here's what he came up with, pushing back pretty hard, kind of touting his own success.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

BARACK OBAMA: In the echo chamber that is presidential politics, everything is dark, and everything is terrible. They don't seem to offer many solutions for the disasters that they perceive, but they're quick to tell you who to blame. I'm here to say that there's nothing particularly patriotic or American about talking down America.

GONYEA: So that's President Obama. Consider that a little advice from the sitting president on how to watch the debate this evening.

SIEGEL: OK. Thanks, Don. That's NPR's Don Gonyea who is preparing for a long night watching the Republican presidential debates. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.