As Republican presidential candidates gather in Detroit for their 11th debate Thursday, they’ll be hard-pressed to top their riveting performance in the one last week in Houston.
Ted Cruz and Marco Rubio have a strong incentive to resume their tag-team assault on front-runner Donald Trump after he won seven more states Tuesday.
Also in the mix: It will be Trump’s first face-to-face encounter with his cable news nemesis Megyn Kelly since the Fox News anchor confronted him at the first GOP debate in August over his history of making demeaning remarks about women.
Here are three things to watch for:
Will Donald Trump stumble?
That question has endured for more than eight months as the New York billionaire has not just survived one controversy after another, but gained strength from them.
Now that Trump’s march toward the nomination appears close to unstoppable, he faces enormous pressure to avoid the kind of outbursts that raise questions about his temperament.
Trump showed restraint on Super Tuesday in a mild-mannered election night news conference in Florida. But can he calibrate his aggressive impulses just right – not too hot, not too cold – as Cruz and Rubio fight to knock him off balance?
And will Trump be rattled by questions from Kelly, a Fox News star he has called a bimbo, lightweight and third-rate reporter? Kelly will moderate the debate with fellow Fox News anchors Bret Baier and Chris Wallace.
Can Rubio or Cruz find an effective line of attack against Trump?
When Rubio abandoned his failed leave-Trump-alone strategy last week, the Florida senator went after him from multiple directions.
There were the Polish workers in the U.S. illegally who helped build Trump Tower in Manhattan in the 1980s; the students suing Trump University for alleged fraud; the scant details about Trump’s healthcare agenda; the foreigners hired instead of Americans to wait tables at Trump’s posh private club in Palm Beach, Fla.
Cruz, a senator from Texas, joined in, ridiculing Trump’s reason – he’s being audited – for refusing to release his tax returns.
After the debate, Rubio’s personal insults against Trump escalated sharply. But he still lost 10 out of 11 contests on Super Tuesday. Now, the Detroit debate will offer Rubio and Cruz what could be one of their last opportunities to try an attack that actually works.
How will the presence of John Kasich and the absence of Ben Carson affect the dynamics?
Ohio Gov. John Kasich has yet to win a state, but he is battling Rubio for the role of party establishment alternative to Trump.
Up to now, Kasich’s nonconfrontational tactics have yielded nothing better than second-place finishes in New Hampshire and Vermont. Will he stick with his campaign, hoping that voters in Michigan on Tuesday and in his home state the following week will vault him into serious contention? Or will Kasich pull a Hail Mary switch the way Rubio did?
The Detroit debate will be the first without Ben Carson, a retired neurosurgeon who was popular among evangelical Christians.
His base of support was nowhere near enough to win a state. But in some of the winner-take-all contests ahead, Carson’s supporters could still essentially decide the winner if they drift collectively toward one candidate. It’s worth watching whether anyone on stage in Detroit can draw votes from those who liked his calm demeanor and his faith-based politics.