Fox News will host the final Republican debate of the “pre-season,” before real voting actually begins next week in the Iowa caucuses and then continues in New Hampshire, South Carolina, Nevada, and beyond. The absence of businessman Donald Trump, the GOP frontrunner, could mean other candidates have an opportunity to seize the spotlight, although it could also mean fewer viewers that might see any “breakout” performance.
The media this morning have a few articles offering predictions, expectations, things to look for, and unsolicited advice for the candidates. Here are a few of the more interesting offerings, beginning with Politico:
5 things to watch in tonight’s debate
Cruz under pressure
The stakes might be highest for [Ted] Cruz, whose grip on first place in Iowa seems to be slipping as Trump claws back in the final days before Iowans vote.
The Texas senator will bring to the stage his campaign trail argument that he is the most conservative candidate in the primary, and that, unlike Trump, he can be trusted. In recent days, Cruz and several super PACs that support him have released TV ads that aim to inject doubts into Iowans’ minds about Trump’s commitment to conservatism, especially on abortion – a core issue for the state’s evangelical voters….
But that’s only if Cruz has the time. He’s expected to spend much of the evening getting flak from Rubio, a chief rival in Iowa, and other competitors looking to score points.
The establishment war raging beyond Iowa
[Marco] Rubio, [Jeb] Bush, Chris Christie, and John Kasich are all depending on strong performances in New Hampshire – a state where none has been able to break away.
On Wednesday, POLITICO obtained an internal poll from a GOP campaign showing Bush and Kasich in a tie for third with 13 percent, followed by Rubio with 10 percent and Christie with 7 percent in the first primary state.
That means the four will be out to undo one another to capture third place in the nomination battle’s second contest, tailoring debate-night talking points not to Iowa’s voters but New Hampshire’s more independent-minded electorate….
Two potential collisions to keep an eye on: Bush vs. Kasich and Bush vs. Christie…. On Thursday, Bush could go after both.
The New York Times offers the thoughts of several of its political reporters on what to be looking for in this evening’s debate, including the following:
I will be paying close attention to a man on the stage who is not known for his debating skills: Jeb Bush. If Mr. Bush hopes to get a second look from voters (in Iowa but also New Hampshire), he could use a breakout moment.
Mr. Bush has shown that he is comfortable attacking Mr. Trump, but if the billionaire businessman boycotts the debate, as promised, it is unclear whether Mr. Bush will be as comfortable, or capable, of delivering a blow to his other rivals.
— Ashley Parker
If Mr. Trump’s presence sucked the air out of past debates, what will fill the vacuum this time? Look for the candidates seeking to appeal to establishment-aligned voters to make attacks that echo the ads the “super PACs” supporting them are placing on the airwaves: Marco Rubio on Mr. Bush, Mr. Bush on Mr. Christie, John R. Kasich on Mr. Rubio, and every variation in between.
— Nicholas Confessore
Can Ben Carson make an impression? He has yet to accomplish that feat in the Republican debates. But with his candidacy hinging on a strong showing in Iowa, this could be his last chance to make his pitch to a large number of voters. The retired neurosurgeon has been studying tax policy, cybersecurity and foreign policy. Thursday night may be his final opportunity to put that knowledge on display.
— Alan Rappeport
Does Mr. Kasich still get a free pass?
The Ohio governor has drawn scant criticism from his opponents so far, with the occasional exception of Mr. Trump. But Mr. Kasich’s polling numbers have risen lately in New Hampshire, where he has insistently wooed more moderate Republican voters. With a tight race there among the establishment-friendly candidates, rivals like Mr. Christie and Mr. Rubio may not allow Mr. Kasich to deliver his message again unchallenged.
— Alexander Burns
There’s also plenty of commentary on what Trump’s absence will mean, such as this from The Hill:
Thursday evening’s GOP debate will be dominated by the man who isn’t there: Donald Trump.
The Republican front-runner insists he won’t participate in the clash just four days before Monday’s pivotal caucuses.
The key question is whether his gambit will prove to be a stroke of genius or an impulsive folly….
Trump’s non-appearance will also invite his rivals, including Cruz, to portray him as soft and whiny — charges that could do serious damage to the front-runner’s core appeal as a confident, devil-may-care figure.
Trump’s absence isn’t the sole focus of The Hill’s piece:
Does Cruz become a target?
The Texas senator will find himself dead-center of the stage for the first time Thursday evening. It could be an advantage for a candidate with serious debating chops who will savor the symbolism of looking like the race’s dominant figure.
But the same dynamic could also make Cruz the primary target of attacks from his rivals….
Can Rubio seize a moment?
Rubio has been sidelined by the Trump-Cruz fireworks, not only during the current furor but also in the most recent GOP debate earlier this month in South Carolina….
His campaign has been talking up the idea that he has momentum in these closing days in Iowa, and a good debate performance could help his cause enormously.
Largely absent from the articles leading up to the debate is any mention of Kentucky Sen. Rand Paul, who missed the cutoff for the previous event but qualified for this evening’s debate on the basis of improved poll numbers in Iowa, as reported in the Lexington Herald-Leader:
With less than a week to go before the Iowa caucuses kick off the 2016 presidential nominating contests, Kentucky junior U.S. Sen. Rand Paul is claiming momentum after being allowed back onto the main Republican debate stage.
The senator was livid after being excluded from the main stage in the last debate because he failed to meet the polling criteria, blaming the media, questioning the polls and refusing to participate in the under-card debate.
But Paul has inched up in the polls in Iowa, allowing him to participate in Thursday’s debate on Fox News Channel.
Donald Trump has dominated headlines with his decision to skip the debate, but Paul called his return to the main stage “the shot in the arm we’ve been waiting for.”
In a fundraising email Tuesday, Paul wrote at length about the importance of appearing in Thursday night’s debate, telling his supporters that most voters “won’t make their final decisions until after this debate.”
He’s almost certainly correct that being on the main stage represents an opportunity that could boost his chances of a strong showing, although several other candidates are no doubt aiming for the same breakout opportunity. The evening will also include an “undercard” debate featuring four low-polling candidates: businesswoman Carly Fiorina, former Virginia Gov. Jim Gilmore, former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee, and former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum.
Trump’s absence from the last major event prior to the Iowa caucuses is likely to have some significant impact, but we’ll probably have to wait until Monday night’s results to find out what it was.