CLEVELAND, Ohio – Even though all of the top Republican hopefuls will share a stage for the first time Thursday night, GOP strategist Karl Rove insisted before a packed house in Cleveland Wednesday that “this is not a debate.”

With a crowd of donors filling a 200-seat fundraiser for three Northeast Ohio colleges, Rove talked about the logistical challenges posed by the sprawling, 10-candidate cast of would-be nominees.

“Let’s be clear,” the onetime senior adviser and deputy chief of staff for George W. Bush said. “This is a series of ten sequential news conferences, masquerading as a debate.”

“Let’s not kid ourselves. Nothing definitive will be settled tomorrow night,” he said, adding that there would still be “a debate about the debate during the debate on social networks.”

Rove weighed in on Donald Trump, who will stand at the center podium in Cleveland Thursday, based on his top position in Fox’s final poll rankings. “He’s done a better job than I’d expected in the last month of improving his numbers,” he said of the billionaire tycoon. “He’s a celebrity. He knows how to do it, and the format’s going to work for him. He understands new media.”

Rove said Trump was drawing support from “Republicans who are so furious with Obama they just want to blow it all up… The question is, how durable is that?”

Due to the large 2016 Republican field — 17 candidates — Fox News, the sponsor of the event, said in May it would limit participation in the opening debate to candidates in the top 10, based on an average of the five most recent national polls. The cutoff was Aug. 4, at 5 p.m. ET. The network later added an additional, earlier forum for candidates who didn’t qualify for the main debate.

Starting at 9 p.m. Thursday, FOX News Channel will offer live coverage of the two-hour debate, with Bret Baier, Megyn Kelly and Chris Wallace co-moderating. The candidates left out of the prime-time tussle will take part in a forum at 5 p.m. Thursday for one hour, Fox says.

Rove, credited by George W. Bush as the architect of his 2004 General Election victory, was brought to Cleveland by programs at three universities universities to offer tips on what viewers should look for when the action begins Thursday night at the Quicken Loans Arena.

Rove estimated that each candidate would have at most 10 minutes to speak.

“This is: how do you say something in a minute? What are our three points for the entire evening? What will we say when we get asked about the Iran deal?”

“Does the candidate have two to three points in their mind they can drive home? Do they do things in a way that seems authentic? Can people see the candidate in the Oval Office?”

When asked about the possibility of an independent candidate emerging in 2016, Rove was direct.

“It’s a possibility. And if it is, the Democrats will win. And that’s not a cheery thought.”

As for the Democrats, the Republican strategist said Hillary Clinton would likely be the nominee, “but it ain’t gonna be pretty.”

“She’s dropping in the polls,” Rove said. “And they’re all self-inflicted wounds.”

But “she’s well-known, so it’s difficult to change opinions people have,” he added.

The Rove event, sponsored by The Ralph and Mary Regula Center for Public Service and Civic Engagement at the University of Mount Union, the Maxine Goodman Levin College of Urban Affairs at Cleveland State University, and the Ray C. Bliss Institute of Applied Politics at The University of Akron.