There are just a few days left before Super Tuesday, meaning Thursday night's GOP debate in Houston gives the five remaining candidates a final chance to make their case before voters in more than a dozen states and territories head to the polls. Here's what to look for on the CNN stage:
- How Ted Cruz recovers from recent losses. Cruz is likely a bit nervous after losing to Donald Trump and Marco Rubio in South Carolina and Nevada. What could decide his comeback or his undoing: which "face," as NPR puts it, shows up in his home state—the "softer side" he's shown recently to Senate colleagues and others, or the "embattled and all-but-martyred conservative champion"; if he can combat the "liar" label that's been thrown at him in recent days, per the Los Angeles Times; and whether he turns his fire more on Trump or Rubio on the debate stage.
- If Rubio can finally stand out as the clear establishment choice. The same dilemma applies to Rubio and who he'll focus his attacks on: Trump, Cruz, or both. Either way, as New York Times political reporter Michael Barbaro puts it, Rubio can't settle for a decent debate. "He has to have the biggest night of his campaign, cutting Mr. Trump down to size, inflicting real damage [Cruz], and showing Republican voters that [he] is both angry and sane enough to be their standard-bearer."
- Whether Trump, as CNN puts it, will "go in for the kill." He's already claimed victories in New Hampshire, Nevada, and South Carolina, despite sometimes "shaky" debate performances and a frontrunner target on his back. Trump may have momentum, but he may not be content to ride that alone to the GOP nomination: Instead, CNN wonders how he'll react Thursday if he's attacked, whether he'll leave any "breathing room" for Cruz and Rubio or if he'll go the scorched-earth route.
- Will John Kasich mail it in or keep things aggressive? Establishment GOPers are "increasingly anxious," CNN notes, about the prospect of Trump or Cruz as the nominee and want to throw all their muscle behind Rubio. Times reporter Thomas Kaplan wants to see "how [Kasich] tries to justify his continued existence in the race," while NPR notes Kasich probably is still keeping an eye on being a running mate, meaning "he is unlikely to unload on either Trump or Rubio. And he may also be loath to unload on Cruz while in Texas."
- What, if anything, is expected out of Ben Carson? Widely regarded to be the candidate with the least shot of gaining nominee status, it's been a long fall for Carson. The media has few expectations for him, other than maybe disrupting momentum for the others, perhaps via his appeal to religious voters in the South, per the LAT. But surprises from Carson at this point? "Maybe not so much," NPR notes.
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