The only exception is if a candidate makes a statement, or more accurately, gaffe that seems so far out of the pale that it exposes his ignorance or incompetence on an issue. This happened with President Gerald Ford when he bumbled and said "There is no Soviet domination of Eastern Europe" in his debate with Democratic presidential rival Jimmy Carter in 1976.
The other exception is a "gotcha" question or statement that leaves the put upon candidate red-faced, stumbling, fumbling and stewing to come up with an answer. This happened with Democratic presidential contender Michael Dukakis in the 1988 debate with George H.W. Bush when he was asked by the debate moderator whether he would support the death penalty should his wife, Kitty, be raped and murdered. His fumble of the out of left field question didn't help his image with many voters.
The question then of a presidential debate's seeming irrelevancy loomed big in the first of the marathon series of scheduled debates between the pack of GOP presidential candidates. Before the first question was posed and the first candidate pursed his lips to answer, the GOP debate was pooh poohed by some as just another exercise in posturing, bluster, and a carnival side show.
The reason for the blow-off is simple. The 2016 presidential election is more than a year off. That's a comparative lifetime in the world of issues and practical problems such as a new Benghazi type attack that demands an intense look at foreign policy concerns and decisions, another shoot up of a school or mall that demands a fresh reassessment of gun control laws, or a new oil supply disruption that demands a hard look at energy costs and policy. Whoever ultimately winds up in the White House will have to scramble and rethink ways and means to deal with these issues. So just regurgitating a stock position on the issues that is always subject to change seems trite. Even in the best circumstances, the GOP candidates simply do not have enough information on the never ending array of crucial issues, policies and programs that's part of their White House watch. Every president has found that grim political fact of life out and been on a hard learning curve from the instant he has put his first foot in the White House. January 2017 will be no different for the eventual presidential derby winner.
Now with that out of the way, the GOP presidential hopefuls, beyond the marginal name recognition they have outside of their states, will be on full public display in the debate for the first time to voters. And even though most voters won't be tuning into Fox Network at this early stage of the game, to watch and listen to them, they'll be fed enough bits and pieces of what the candidates said to get at least some idea of what they think on some issues. It will also provide a measuring stick of whether the GOP candidates can shed the image of being variously obstructionists, nay sayers, chronic Obama loathers, closet bigots, and in the case of Texas Senator Ted Cruz, and especially neurosurgeon Ben Carson, and billionaire Donald Trump, shoot-from-the lip, loose cannons who will hopelessly inflame, polarize, and embarrass the nation.
The debate will also serve as an early weeding out process for the candidates who are so ill-informed, ignorant, and light weight on the issues to render them clearly unfit for a serious White House bid. This happened in the 2012 GOP presidential debates with then Texas governor Rick Perry. He terribly embarrassed himself with an "ouch" moment by not being able to remember the third federal agency he had pledged to eliminate if elected president. He was soon finished as a viable candidate after that.
The GOP debate will be watched and critically assessed if for nothing else because one of the candidates will eventually emerge from the pack, and get the party nod to challenge the at this point likely Democratic presidential contender, Hillary Clinton. This in itself will be a litmus test whether that candidate can actually go toe to toe with Clinton in a general debate on the issues that will be much more sharply defined in 2016.
Debate number 1, then, is not the terrible waste that many think and say. With Trump and Carson and Cruz on the stage, it might even be entertaining.
Earl Ofari Hutchinson is an author and political analyst. He is a frequent MSNBC contributor. He is an associate editor of New America Media. He is a weekly co-host of the Al Sharpton Show on Radio One's Reach Media. He is the host of the weekly Hutchinson Report on KTYM 1460 AM Radio Los Angeles and KPFK-Radio and the Pacifica Network.