The seven top Republicans — sorry Rand Paul! — will gather tonight in North Charleston, S.C., for their sixth presidential debate, and the first of 2016.
With the Iowa caucuses now only 18 days away, the attacks should fly fast and furious. Here’s a guide to the key matchups to watch.
Donald Trump, left, and Ted Cruz. (John Locher/AP)
1. Donald Trump vs. Ted Cruz
The billionaire and the Texas senator have played very nice with each other over the first five debates — believing it was in their mutual best interests to be friends.
It’s no longer in their mutual best interests to be friends. Cruz and Trump are locked in a tight battle in Iowa, and Cruz has moved into second place nationally behind The Donald.
Trump has spent the last week hitting Cruz on questions regarding whether his Canadian birthplace means he can’t serve as president — attacks that have distracted the Texas senator and taken him off-course in the run-up to Iowa. Cruz, after trying to laugh off the attack, has — finally — decided to go after Trump. “I think he may shift in his new rallies to playing ‘New York, New York,’ because Donald comes from New York, and he embodies New York values,” Cruz told a conservative radio host earlier this week.
Trump will certainly go after Cruz on the citizenship question on Thursday night. And Cruz will certainly have a prepared answer.
Which wins the day: the attack or the rebuttal?
2. Marco Rubio vs. Chris Christie
The battle for the establishment lane — in Iowa and New Hampshire — may well come down to the Florida senator and the New Jersey governor. Sensing that, the two have already begun to spar — rhetorically and via competing TV ads.
The lines are already generally drawn. Rubio will likely go after Christie as too moderate/too close to President Obama — echoing the theme of an ad his super PAC began running in the last week.
Christie will cast Rubio as a lightweight — politically and from a policy perspective. “The guy who advocated for amnesty and then ran away when the topic got too hot tells you two things: He’s not a reliable conservative — A — and B, whenever it gets too hot, Marco turns tail and runs,” Christie told The Washington Post earlier this month.
This matchup is all the more intriguing because of the stylistic contrast between the two men. Both are charismatic and gifted communicators who think well on their feet. But where Christie is brash, Rubio is by-the-book. Which style wins out tonight?
(It should also be noted here that Rubio is also taking incoming from a super PAC supporting Cruz and also from Jeb Bush. So those conflicts could flare up too.)
3. Jeb Bush vs. Trump
For every debate since the first one, Jeb(!) Bush has needed “a moment.” He’s had varying levels of success at achieving that goal — Bush was good in the last debate, he was terrible in the third, for example — but nothing has seemed to move the needle for him.
So I think we should all move beyond the “can Jeb find his moment” moment. Instead, keep an eye on how aggressive Jeb is against Trump. For the past month — at least — Jeb has been the most consistent and outspoken critic of The Donald. And, on Thursday, he launched an ad blasting Trump for the latter’s comments about a disabled reporter.
Here’s the key for Jeb: In the past, he’s pulled his punches when facing his rivals face to face. (See: Rubio vs. Jeb in October’s debate.) That won’t work against Trump. Bush has to be willing to talk over Trump, get nasty and, well, street fight. I’m not convinced he has it in him.
4. John Kasich vs. John Kasich
The Ohio governor’s performances in the debates have varied widely. After a strong start to debate season, Kasich seemed to get some bad advice in the fourth debate — butting in at every turn and generally coming across as, well, a jerk. Kasich, perhaps fazed by the criticism after that performance, was more measured — almost to the point of leaving no trace — in the fifth debate.
Kasich remains relevant in the broader conversation because he continues to look like a player in the establishment lane in New Hampshire. (The Real Clear Politics polling average puts him in a statistical dead heat with Rubio for second.)
But he has to find his/the right voice in a debate setting — and fast. Tonight marks the first of three debates before the Feb. 9 New Hampshire primary. (There’s a debate on Jan. 28 in Iowa and one on Feb. 6 in New Hampshire.) He needs to do it by then.
5. Neil Cavuto and Maria Bartiromo vs. the candidates
If I’ve learned anything during the previous five Republican presidential debates, it’s that the moderators — and what role they see for themselves — are very much part of who wins and who loses in the final assessment.
Cruz, for example, effectively launched his current hot streak when he slammed the moderators at the CNBC debate for allegedly avoiding policy questions in favor of trying to start fights between the candidates. (Irony alert: Cruz refused to answer a policy question in order to deliver that screed.)
Bartiromo and Cavuto were part of a generally well-reviewed debate back in November, but they are promising more aggression and fireworks tonight. “I think when you can pin a candidate down — ‘Are you against any type of gun control at all, would you restrict guns or background checks at all in any area?’ — you hope to get some answers to crystallize where they’re coming from,” Cavuto told Politico.
How the candidates interact with the two moderators and how aggressive the moderators are in pushing for real answers to tough questions will play a major factor in choosing winners and losers tonight.