Eleven candidates are slated to be on stage for the main debate at 8 p.m. tonight at the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library. Donald Trump remains the frontrunner nationally and in the early states, but his rivals are starting to take the gloves off. The four bottom-tier candidates will be in an undercard debate at 6 p.m.
It seems likely that Ronald Reagan’s rule -– never speak badly of a fellow Republican –- will be violated several times in his own presidential library.
Each candidate has their work cut out for them. Here are the five things to watch for when the top Republican contenders face off.
It's not a question of “if” or “when” –- it's a matter of “who” will attack Trump first at the debate. He's attacked just about everyone on that stage. From Carly Fiorina's looks to Jeb Bush's energy, Trump has even warned Ben Carson not to pick a fight with the Donald. Still, Trump has said he doesn't start fights, saying he’s a "counter puncher.” But with neurosurgeon Carson rising quickly behind Trump, the pressure is on. As for debate night, Trump told press Saturday in Boone, IA he wants "to talk about a lot of different things. There’s so many things you can talk about. They can talk Obama Care, they can talk- but what we’re really talking about, in my opinion, security, the military, of which I really know a lot about. I think one of the biggest surprises if I win will be how good I am at national security."
2. FIORINA STEPS INTO THE SPOTLIGHT
After a hard fought battle off the “kids’ table” for a chance to play in the big leagues, Fiorina has officially earned a spot on the GOP primetime debate stage. Fiorina, who shined at Fox’s “Happy Hour” debate last month, comes ready to make some noise, especially towards Trump. Even though Fiorina is an outsider, she’s yet to seize on the support that Trump and Carson have seen, remaining stalled in the single digits in the polls. Expect the only woman in the packed GOP field to go after the mogul for his statements about women. Trump recently attacked Fiorina’s appearance in a Rolling Stone magazine interview saying, “Look at that face! Would anyone vote for that? Can you imagine that, the face of our next president?!” These comments are sure to become central to her attacks on The Donald.
3. CARSON REACHES THE MOMENT OF TRUTH
Trump vs. Carson: That’s what the polls are saying. The two GOP frontrunners will be standing together center stage –- and Carson is sure to get more talking time than last go-around. Just a day before the debate, the retired neurosurgeon is surging in the polls, trailing only slightly behind the real estate mogul. Carson has repeatedly said he refuses to attack The Donald, but last week he gave in by attacking his faith. Despite the Twitter bait from Trump, Carson has largely been avoiding confrontation with him, but this may change tomorrow. He, of course, will bring his calm and pleasant demeanor to the debate stage, but will be under pressure to respond to Trump’s attacks. Carson is not likely, though, to attack Trump too aggressively, as he has said multiple times he is not going to entertain a “fight” between the two. Carson spent last weekend in Washington, D.C. prepping for the debate, going over issues his campaign is sure he will be quizzed on, particularly foreign policy and Planned Parenthood.
The Wisconsin governor will take the stage acutely aware of how high the stakes are for his candidacy. Following a lackluster performance at the first GOP debate last month, Trump began to climb even higher in the polls. Meanwhile, Walker has seen his poll numbers diminish from solid double digits to low single digits and he’s lost his title as the early frontrunner in the first-in-the-nation caucus state of Iowa. Walker has said that voters can expect to see a more aggressive and passionate candidate in the second debate. And in contrast to the cautious approach he took last time, we will be watching for Walker to take risks in diverging from his standard talking points, potentially going on the attack against the other Republicans on the stage.
5. CAN BUSH CLAW HIS WAY BACK INTO THE RACE?
The second debate presents an opportunity for Bush, a chance to recover from an uninspiring performance during the last debate. But can he seize it? He's sinking in the polls, having rapidly lost his frontrunner status to political outsiders Trump and Carson. He’s also been criticized for being "low-energy", opting to answer questions in his typical cerebral, wonkish style, rather than the more theatrical effect to which many credit Trump's rise in support. After many vigorous on-the-road sessions, Bush says he's ready to tout his "conservative" record as former Florida governor. Advisers also say he'll campaign hard, though we shouldn't expect him to throw the first punch. As Bush told a crowd in Salem, New Hampshire last week, "I’ll campaign hard, if someone comes at me — bam! — I’ll come back at them."