The 2007 CNN / YouTube Republican Debate. (freddthompson / CC BY-SA 3.0)

I feel like a kid the week before Christmas. There’s just one present under the tree, but it’s all a columnist could ever hope for: the first Republican debate!

How could next Thursday night in Cleveland fail to be one of the most entertaining political spectacles we’ve seen in a long time? There are, far as I can tell, 17 candidates for the GOP nomination. Nobody’s quite sure which 10 will qualify for the prime-time clash, with the rest relegated to an earlier also-rans debate. Fox News, which is organizing the festivities, says it will use an average of national polls to make the cut, but won’t say which polls.

One hopes the poor candidates at least hear the good or bad news before they arrive in Cleveland. Imagine the phone call Rick Perry’s campaign might get: “Um, has the governor’s plane landed yet? Because it turns out we need him on stage quite a bit earlier than we thought.”

That would be a shame, because Perry gave arguably the most memorable debate performance of the 2012 campaign, though not in a good way. But if Fox were to go by the RealClearPolitics polling averages, as of one week before the debate Perry would be bounced out of the main event. A late entrant, Ohio Gov. John Kasich, would take his place.

Mind you, Perry is at 2.2 percent in the polls, on average, while Kasich is at 3.2 percent. In a recent Washington Post poll, Perry actually led Kasich by 4 percent to 2 percent; in other surveys, the difference is within the margin of error. On such small or perhaps nonexistent distinctions may hang political careers.

So for the candidates on the bubble, life must be fraught. But we already know who’s going to be the star of the evening. Are you ready for your close-up, Mr. Trump?

Every recent poll of Republicans has put Donald Trump in first place. The RealClearPolitics average has him at 19.8 percent, trailed by Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker at 13.6 percent, establishment favorite Jeb Bush at 12.6 percent and everyone else in single figures.

When I look at the Trump phenomenon, I can’t help but recall something Gen. David Petraeus said to my Washington Post colleague Rick Atkinson as they surveyed the battlefield during the early days of the Iraq invasion: “Tell me how this ends.”

A gaffe that might have ended a normal campaign — derisively questioning the war record of Sen. John McCain, who was shot down over Vietnam, held as a POW and tortured — seems only to have made Trump stronger (as, ahem, I had predicted). The lack of any relationship between his wildly slanderous allegations about Mexican immigrants and the factual record seems not to bother his fans one bit. The fact that he supports universal health care, when opposing any such thing is a Republican article of faith, seems a minor detail far outweighed by the loud and irrepressible Trumpness of his being.

Maybe Trump will somehow self-destruct in the debate. But who among his rivals is more skilled at projecting a persona on television? Trump knows how to filibuster and won’t hesitate to turn an inconvenient question back on the questioner. Even if he brings nothing to the podium but bombast, he might emerge unscathed.

The question becomes whether the others go after him. Perry, if he makes it to the big dance, surely will. But what about the rest? Will they throw proper punches, legal under Marquess of Queensberry rules, against an opponent who kicks, bites and gouges?

And how will the non-Trump candidates seek to present themselves in the most positive light? Will Walker refute Trump’s allegation that Wisconsin is “doing terribly” or will he just brag about his victories over organized labor? Will Bush break into Spanish? Will Sen. Marco Rubio of Florida, drowned out of late, try to crank up the volume? Will retired neurosurgeon Ben Carson again compare the Affordable Care Act to slavery?

Can Mike Huckabee come up with an even more offensive Holocaust analogy for the Iran nuclear deal? Can Sen. Rand Paul of Kentucky remind voters that, you know, he’s still in the race? Will Sen. Ted Cruz of Texas help Mr. Trump with his jacket and ask if he’d like a glass of water? Will Kasich make himself the flavor of the month? Will New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie punch somebody?

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