Local observers looking forward to GOP presidential debate

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HARRISBURG, Pa. - Pennsylvanians watching the first GOP presidential debate Thursday are looking to see if any of the candidates could set themselves apart from the crowded field.

“It really helps to kick-start the 2016 Republican primary,” Megan Sweeney, communications director for the Pennsylvania Republican party, said. “Our candidates have a chance to really schedule and prepare and have a good, substantive debate.”

A Quinnipiac University survey in June polled several hypothetical matchups in Pennsylvania, suggesting Marco Rubio and Rand Paul would edge out Democrat Hillary Clinton in the Keystone State, with several other Republican candidates within striking distance of the Democratic front-runner. The poll was conducted before Donald Trump's surge in national polls.

“It helps to ensure that Pennsylvania is an extremely important state in presidential politics and ensure that Pennsylvania has a voice,” Sweeney said.

Republicans will look to this first debate, hosted on Fox News, as a way to start forming their opinions on which of the 17 candidates to support.

Those on the other side of the aisle see the debate and race a little bit differently.

“It's going to take the place of Jon Stewart for us,” Diane Bowman, executive director for the Pennsylvania Democratic Party, said.

Democrats are watching the debate closely as well.

“Hopefully it's not as much about their aggrandizements and it's more about where they stand on the issues,” Bowman said. “I don't know that we're going to get into those kinds of weeds yet, but it's a hope.”

Even though it's very early in the process, one thing many observers would like to see from this debate is a thinning of the herd.

“There are so many [candidates] currently that I think right now you hear more about the fact that there are so many instead of individual ones,” Sweeney said.

“It will tell everybody based on the responses they get to this debate and everything who needs to stay in and who needs to go away,” Bowman said.