I've watched all of the Republican presidential debates so far. There have been more than a dozen, if you include the undercard debates. I've noticed that some issues haven't come up much yet, if at all. We'll see if that continues in tonight's debate and the others to follow. But the fact that these patterns have persisted through more than a dozen debates is significant.
It's a reminder that we need to distinguish between primary debates and debates in the general election campaign. A candidate can be well-suited for one, but do poorly in the other context.
The audiences will be different. There are lines that will get nothing but applause in a Republican primary debate, but would also get a lot of booing in a debate for the general election.
More significantly, the questioning is likely to be different. It's often noted that the media, who tend to have a liberal bias, probably are holding back on some of the stories they could run on Trump (his bad relationships with women, his dubious financial dealings, etc.). If Trump were to become the nominee, I suspect the coverage of him would become significantly more negative than it has been so far. That's also true of the Republicans in general, though Trump is much more vulnerable here than anybody else.
One issue that hasn't been getting much attention so far, but surely will later, is sexism. We're sure to hear about how historic and great it would be to elect the first female president. We'll hear about how sexist the nation supposedly has been. We'll hear about instances in which Clinton herself allegedly has been the victim of sexism. It will at least be implied, if not stated explicitly, that we owe it to women in general and owe it to Clinton in particular to elect her as the first female president. In other words, it will be a repeat of 2008, except with gender issues substituting for racial ones. The media will have their thumb heavy on the scale, won't admit it at the time, then will admit it later, acting as if they regret it and will try not to be biased in the future. (Does anybody actually think the media have learned a lesson from 2008 and will refrain from such bias in the 2016 campaign? I don't. I think they knew what they were doing in 2008, knew it was unethical, did it anyway, and were disingenuous when they later acknowledged their bias and acted as though they regretted it.) Even if the media weren't biased, the Clinton campaign would keep trying to bring up gender issues and portray Clinton's Republican rival as a sexist. Given the combined interests of the media and the Clinton campaign, I expect gender issues to be much more prominent in the general election debates (and other aspects of the campaign) than they are now.
The same goes for LGBT issues. (Or LGBTQ or whatever the latest acronym is supposed to be.) The Democrats and their allies in the media, Hollywood, etc. are big on identity politics. Trump is the only prominent Republican candidate they could play the class warfare card on in a big way, like they did with Romney. Since Trump won't be the nominee, they won't be able to play that card as much as they have in the past and would like to in 2016. It would be especially hard to use the class warfare card against Rubio. So, the Democrats will want some alternatives. One is the gender card, which I've discussed above. Another will be the anti-LGBT card, with the usual accusations of "bigotry", "homophobia", "transphobia", etc. Expect LGBT issues to become much more prominent in the general election campaign. And expect a lot of Republicans to respond poorly to it, openly wringing their hands about how backward their party is, how they're sure to lose young voters if they keep going down this path, etc. The Republican nominee will need to stay the course by maintaining traditional conservative positions on LGBT issues. He'll need to do that not only in response to the Democrats and their allies, but also in response to weak-kneed and back-stabbing fellow Republicans.
What we need, then, is a Republican nominee who can handle situations like these in the general election campaign. Of the three leading Republican candidates, Trump is clearly the most unpromising. He's ignorant of the issues, including gender and LGBT issues. He's winging it, and it shows. He's a poor communicator. He's a poor debater. He's at least one of the most self-contradictory candidates ever to seek the presidency, perhaps the most self-contradictory one ever. He doesn't just contradict what he said a year or a decade earlier, but often contradicts what he said a few days or a few weeks ago. If he's asked about LGBT issues in three debates, he could easily give three answers that are mutually exclusive, assuming that the answers are even coherent to begin with. He has a long history of abusing women. He's less vulnerable than Rubio and Cruz when the anti-LGBT card is played (because of his liberal past and how unconcerned and disingenuous he is about his current positions), but he's more vulnerable to the gender card and opens the door to the class warfare and race cards (e.g., all of the racist organizations and individuals supporting Trump, Trump promoting their material on Twitter, etc.). I could go on, but the obvious point is that Trump would be the worst of the three leading Republican candidates, by a wide margin.
Though Rubio and Cruz would both be a big improvement over Trump, that isn't saying much. Rubio would be the better of the two. He has a better reputation than Cruz, a better disposition, comes across as more like the average person, comes across as more sincere, and is a better communicator. His line about not needing to be lectured by Clinton about economic issues, since his family lived paycheck-by-paycheck when he was growing up, is a good one. He and Cruz would both make it much harder than usual for the Democrats to play the race and class warfare cards. And both would have a good response to any media focus on gender issues. "I notice that you keep asking questions about gender. You keep talking about how historic it would be to have the first female president. Why aren't you talking about the first Hispanic president? Do you have something against Hispanics?" Or something like that. When the Republican nominee is part of a racial minority, comes from a modest economic background, is so much younger than the Democratic nominee, has so much less of a reputation for scandals, communicates as well as Rubio does, and has his disposition, the Democrats and their allies will be facing a much more formidable opponent than they're accustomed to.