The Republican presidential candidates take the stage for the 10th time on Thursday night, with what could be the greatest implications yet because it is the late debate before Super Tuesday, which is March 1. At the same time, however, this debate could be a debate in name only.
Front runner Donald Trump, Texas Sen. Ted Cruz, Florida Sen. Marco Rubio, Ohio Gov. John Kasich and retired neurosurgeon Ben Carson will all take part in the showdown of Texas proportions at University of Houston in the forum hosted by CNN, Telemundo and Salem Communications.
Trump, who is the delegate leader and the candidate with the momentum after winning three out of the four early nominating contests, has the anti-establishment wind at his back. He has thrived in this election year, in part, because he has tapped into an angry electorate that is sick of the establishment. He can, therefore, say pretty much anything and escape the debate without harm, and come out on top — like he has in almost every other debate.
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There is the possibility of the debate being competitive and involving Trump, but for that to happen, the others on the stage will need to say something that resonates with the mogul's base. That has been proven difficult to do because even when Trump has made statements that would have been a death sentence to other candidates, he has survived, and even surged as a result.
It is likely that, if Trump were to be attacked, he would still come out on top because of his responses, which have damaged candidates in the past, his base and his momentum. His base appreciates that he is talking to them, so there is likely little he will be able to say to push them away, which also means there is little his opponents can say against him that would get supporters to flock around them.
The greater possibility, at least on the Trump front, is that this will be a debate in name only because he will dominate. His opponents, especially Cruz and Rubio, will try to swing at the businessman, but they will have to calculate carefully because if Trump swings back, he could put their campaigns on life support.
The most likely scenario is that the debate is competitive between only Cruz and Rubio. They will try to attack one another, so they can become second to Trump. They will then likely try to frame the race as one-on-one, which means conservative vs. liberal-turned-conservative for Cruz, and quasi-establishment vs. anti-establishment for Rubio.
Cruz, who is backed by Evangelicals, extreme conservatives and part of the anti-establishment bloc, has the most to lose because his supporters are probably more likely to switch to Trump than are Rubio's, who are mostly of the establishment variety. It is essential for him to come in second if he wants to compete against Trump. Viewers will likely hear Cruz call Rubio establishment — even though he was elected as part of the 2010 Tea Party wave — and pro-amnesty.
Rubio also wants to come in second, and he wants to emerge as the establishment choice, which also means the anti-Trump and anti-Cruz vote. He will go after Cruz, likely by calling him a liar, and he will go after Kasich who is his competition for the establishment bloc, likely by calling him liberal and continuing to bring up the fact he expanded Medicaid — via the Affordable Care Act — in his state.
Kasich will try to counter Rubio, but if the trend from past debates continues, he will not have many opportunities to do so. That is even more the case for Carson, who will reinforce the idea that he is an outsider, and will do his best to tap into Cruz's base because he too is vying for the religious vote.
The big prize for the candidates are all of the states holding their contests on Tuesday. They are all going to try to prove themselves to voters, so they can at least compete against Trump. If they spend too much time fighting each other on the stage, Trump will win by default, and he could basically seal the nomination by Tuesday night. If they hit hard, he will still likely win, but there is the slim possibility it could hurt him on Tuesday.
The debate will air at 5:30 p.m. PST on CNN. The head moderator will be Wolf Blitzer.