WASHINGTON • As nine candidates prepare to take their place today alongside Donald Trump for the first Republican presidential debate, a question looms: How does one deal with a rival for whom bombast is part of his DNA?
The real-estate tycoon turned White House contender is also the United States' most prolific political insult generator, imposing a sense of must-see-TV on the opening duel of the 2016 cycle.
He has blasted fellow Republican White House hopeful Jeb Bush as "weak", Senator Lindsey Graham as an "idiot", and former Texas governor Rick Perry as a buffoon who wears glasses "so people will think he's smart".
Despite or perhaps because of his outrageous promises and harsh invective since launching his campaign in June, the brash billionaire has snatched a wide poll lead.
Mr Trump has trumped many who have spent years meticulously preparing for this moment - writing memoirs or policy books, espousing causes, polishing their image and courting wealthy donors.
Should they now hit back at Mr Trump to get noticed, but at the risk of legitimising a man the Republican National Committee has begged to tone it down?
Ammunition abounds: Mr Trump had, in the past, supported abortion rights and universal health care - heresy for the Republican base - and had backed Democrats like Hillary Clinton.
But rivals would note that taking potshots at Mr Trump could trigger a response in kind.
Mr Bush quipped that he was reassured that retired neurosurgeon Ben Carson will participate in the debate because "before that thing's over we might just need a doctor".
Mr Graham insisted Mr Trump might make more sense to debate viewers if they were drunk.
Mr Carmine Gallo, a communications expert and author of Talk Like TED, offered some advice for those challenging Mr Trump: "Above all, you can't out-Trump Trump," he said. "Americans like their heroes to be authentic and you'll look like a phony if you try to match someone else's personality."
Mr Trump shines when he faces the cameras alone. It may be different when he shares the stage, allotted the same time as nine rivals.
And Mr Trump has dampened down his loose-cannon reputation, telling ABC News: "I'm not looking to attack them." He also downplayed his own performance, stressing: "I'm not a debater."
The biggest bombshell could come if Mr Trump goes against type, emerging as thoughtful, composed and not lobbing verbal grenades.