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The real challenge for candidates during tonight’s debate

President Bush looks at his watch during a presidential debate Thursday, Oct. 15, 1992, at the Univesity of Richmond's Robins Center in Richmond, Va. Independent candidate Ross Perot is at rear.
President Bush looks at his watch during a presidential debate Thursday, Oct. 15, 1992, at the Univesity of Richmond's Robins Center in Richmond, Va. Independent candidate Ross Perot is at rear.Ron Edmonds/stf/AP

When the second Republican presidential debate begins tonight at 8 p.m. on CNN, most eyes will be on the key candidates on the stage.

Donors will look to see if Scott Walker or Chris Christie can have the breakout performance both candidates need to stop their sliding poll numbers. The conservative base will see if Dr. Ben Carson or Carly Fiorina can validate their polling surges. And, of course, people will be shushing each other at debate watch parties every time Donald Trump speaks.

But at some point tonight, candidates and viewers at home will be watching something else: the clock.

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CNN says the prime time debate will run for nearly three hours -- the longest debate in modern presidential politics. Don’t worry: There will be a bathroom moment allowed during the third commercial break.

The length of the debate is probably the largest factor at play tonight. It means this will be an endurance test, both physical and mental. Candidates will be under the hot lights, always on, always a second away from a make or break moment. And the length means that even if a candidate performs well in that one moment, some viewers may have turned off the television or livestream an hour earlier.

These candidates don’t want to break a sweat or feel uncomfortable in their shoes. What’s more, the podiums are about two feet apart, meaning if they spread their arms to show the size of the national debt (or how big was that fish they caught), they will likely touch their neighbor.

One last helpful hint for viewers like you: Don’t agree to any debate drinking game — unless you plan to take off work tomorrow.

It’s going to be a long night.


James Pindell can be reached at james.pindell@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @jamespindell. Click here to subscribe to his daily e-mail update on the 2016 campaign.

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