The expectations game, Fox Business debate edition

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MILWAUKEE -- If you walked out onto a golf green and did a dance with the flag, scratched your backside with it and then stole someone’s ball, they’d throw you off the course and you’d be lucky if they didn’t call the law on you.

But if you were a baby bear and did the same thing, you’d get nothing but “Awww…” and 2.7 million views on YouTube.

Politics is like that: It’s not what you do, it’s how you measure up to expectations – especially in a debate.

As you get ready to watch the fourth GOP debate tonight on the Fox Business Network, keep that little bear in mind. What works for one candidate won’t work for another. To that end: Here’s your Fox News First scorecard for the expectations game.

Expectation -
Donald Trump is into the whole “managing expectations” thing about as much as this guy. But while Trump has delivered some withering put downs and good one-liners, he hasn’t managed to be the flesh-and-blood version of his own Twitter feed many are tuning in to see. Meanwhile, skeptical primary voters assume that they will see a candidate who continues to be light on specifics and substance.

How to surpass it - Trump is trying to address the latter concern today with an op-ed on Chinese trade policy. His message is that he’s the business guy, this is the only business debate and hi time to shine.

But what about the fans? If Trump isn’t insulting his rivals and getting laughs, he sounds like another politician. But if he lets the annoyance he’s been expressing of late about other claimants, particularly Ben Carson and Marco Rubio, overtake him, Trump will not be able to expand his pool of available voters.

The solution is balance. Trump needs to show energy and keep bashing, but leaven the performance with a couple of surprises on depth to help calm Republicans worried that he is setting the party up for a general-election debacle.

Expectation -
Sound bites are not Carson’s thing, and that’s made for uneven performances in the first three debates. He’s had his moments, but has mostly faded into the background as others grabbed the spotlight.

How to surpass it - Carson’s fiery response to the pack of press hounds on Friday was remarkable because it was so different from his usual sleepy-seeming delivery. Imbued with a righteous anger, Carson spoke forcefully as he gave reporters a dressing down.

Carson will face questions on business and economics from the panel and needs legitimate policy responses. But he can pretty well be guaranteed that Trump will reiterate the press attacks on Carson’s life story. He must be ready to deliver the same withering shutdown to his on-stage antagonist as he did to reporters. This is a moment that could change the course of the campaign.

Expectation -
Rubio had the most important moment of the previous debate when he jujitsued Jeb Bush. It was a fatal blow for the former frontrunner and launched Rubio’s latest rise. Pretty tough to top.

How to surpass it - Rubio is way under the skin of not just Bush but also Trump, and he will again be standing right between the two. Rubio’ challenge is to be ready to answer policy questions without appearing glib while still staying ready for attack that could come at any time. He’s walking a tightrope over a tiger pit. But if he does it, the upside will be tremendous.

Expectation -
Cruz is perhaps the most skilled debater on the stage, but has so far turned his sword only on debate moderators and Democrats. Without panelists who will oblige him with biased or mean-spirited questions to bash, Cruz might return to his more muted performances.

How to surpass it - Cruz doesn’t want to do anything to disrupt his status as a popular second choice for Carson and Trump supporters. But at the same time, he doesn’t want to become the backup singer in the band. Cruz has to find a way to distinguish himself without offending the voters he’s courting. One way to do that would be to come to the aid of a competitor in distress. If Trump is trashing Carson in person, Cruz ought to jump into the line of fire.

Expectation -
The mean-spiritedness of Bush’s campaign has surprised the entire political world. Word today that his super PAC is preparing a $20 million nuclear assault on Rubio as too pro-life reinforces every bad notion about this woebegone effort. Kamikaze attacks that weaken a potential nominee for the general election were not what his big-buck backers signed on for. Bush, who promised to “rudely interrupt” in the debate, seems primed for another embittering outing.

How to surpass it - Publicly denounce attack ads from the super PAC he built and urge it not to run negative ads – then use his time to praise and defend his fellow candidates. Bush needs to rediscover grace as a political virtue.

Expectation -
Debates are what launched her candidacy to another level, and this one is on business. That’s a lot of pressure to perform, and Fiorina’s impulse will be to show her CEO chops.

How to surpass it - While Fiorina has faced criticism over her policies as CEO of Hewlett-Packard, there’s no doubt that’s she’s got business savvy. If she can resist the temptation to sound like she’s speaking to a shareholders’ meeting and instead speak with real empathy to the concerns of middle-class voters, she will do much better for her campaign.

Expectations -
Will the sourpuss return? In each of the prior debates Paul has been rivaled only by Bush as the person who looked most miserable on the stage.

How to surpass it - A business focused debate gives Paul a chance to highlight his libertarian roots that drew people to him in the first place. Other debates that ask about national security or social issues forced him to move to the conservative side of the aisle, but business and the economy allows him to attack both Washington and Wall Street. But can he do it with a smile? If Paul can get loosened up, he could excel.

Expectation -
The Ohio governor’s wonky approach and aggravated tone appeal to a narrow slice of the electorate. But in the previous debate he doubled down on it, complaining about his rivals, his party, and the amount of time he’s received.

How to surpass it - Cut out every other reference to the CBO or his term in Congress or as governor. Kasich’s belief that this will somehow turn into a credentials election is as misplaced now as it was when he began. Kasich excels when he talks about why he wants to pursue his policies rather than the policies themselves.

Ahead of tonight’s debate, Chris Stirewalt gives his take on what to expect from the candidates tonight in Milwaukee. On the heels of the controversial CNBC debate, Fox Business seeks to focus on in-depth policy issues, and with fewer candidates on the both stages, the moderators will expect longer and more detailed answers on business and the economy. WATCH HERE.

[Watch Fox Business - At 7 p.m. ET, moderators Trish Regan, Sandra Smith and WSJ Washington Bureau Chief Jerry Seib host the first round. At 9 p.m. ET, moderators Maria Bartiromo, Neil Cavuto and WSJ Editor-in-Chief Gerard Baker host the main event. Click here for listings in your area or watch online.]

How does one escape the early debate and get back on the main stage? You guessed it: be like our friend the bear cub and surpass expectations.

Expectations -
The bar is set highest for Christie in this debate. He’s expected to overtake his opponents after strong showings against those on the main stage. Christie’s a good debater, but his candidacy is almost out of time. Consider the new poll that shows him running fourth in his home state. The expectation is that Christie will try to bulldoze his way through this debate.

How to surpass it - It’s all about heart. Christie has to use his Jersey folksiness to connect with the female voters he needs to get back in the game. The Christie talking about addiction in this video is the Christie who needs to show up in Milwaukee.

Expectations -
Huckabee is the voice of religious conservatives who are tired of hearing they have to change their values in order to help the GOP win. The temptation for struggling campaigns is to return to their roots.

How to surpass it – Huckabee’s best issue is economic populism of the Trumpian kind. He was a blue collar Republican before blue-collar Republicanism was cool. He needs to draw sharp contrasts early with Christie not just on Christie’s pet issue of entitlement changes but also on Wall Street vs. Main Street.

Expectations -
Wonk alert. Jindal made a national political name for himself by fighting Obamacare in his home state of Louisiana. But if the big brain candidate tries to wow voters with fact and figures he will leave them cold.

How to surpass it - The outgoing governor of Louisiana is one of the least known on the stage. So he has a simple task: Make a memory any way he can. WaPo’s recent polling indicates that he has far to go to make an impression. With time running out, it’s time for Jindal to take a chance.

Expectation -
The rap on Santorum is that he is flinty and argumentative.

How to surpass it - Santorum needs to use the rest of his emotional register. He can be very funny and very moving, facts which voters would benefit from being reminded of.

Chris Stirewalt is digital politics editor for Fox News. Want FOX News First in your inbox every day? Sign up here.