Welcome to “Thursday Night Smack down,” also known as the 2016 GOP Presidential Candidates debate tonight from Charleston, South Carolina. The debate begins at 9 p.m. on Fox Business Network and the undercard begins at 6 p.m.. For those who wish to stream the action your choice is FoxBusiness.com and most cable companies who have the network on a pay tier will air it on basic cable tonight.
The network’s managing editor of business news, Neil Cavuto, and global markets editor, Maria Bartiromo, will moderate the main debate. Trish Regan and Sandra Smith will moderate the undercard debate.
Donald Trump will be center stage, flanked by Texas Sen. Ted Cruz and Florida Sen. Marco Rubio. The next wrung will be Dr. Ben Carson and New Jersey Gov. Christie, with former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush and Ohio Gov. John Kasich on the ends.
It’s the home stretch in the presidential campaign before people actually start voting in less than three weeks — and that raises the stakes for tonight debate in Charleston, S.C.
So what should we look for in the debate?
Well first of all there will be some space as only seven podiums remain for the top-tier candidates. The hope is with less people in the debate more time can be spent on the issues.
The undercard debate is hardly worth missing dinner over with Sen. Rand Paul of Kentucky and former tech executive Carly Fiorina were bumped from the primetime lineup, and Paul says he’s skipping the earlier undercard debate. Fiorina will face former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee and former Sen. Rick Santorum of Pennsylvania, two darlings of Christian conservatives but these four non factors in the race.
Look for Donald Trump to remain the great disruptor of the 2016 presidential campaign to use his role as frontrunner to play defense when need be and attack anyone who goes after him. Thus far it has been the story of his success. He has held the frontrunner position for almost six months and it really does not matter if the Republican establishment wants him as their nominee or not he remains the man to beat.
Here are a few items to look for when watching tonight’s debate.
- When Trump gets asked about S.C. Gov. Nikki Haley, and he certainly should, does he go after her like he has every other critic? Haley, in giving the GOP response to the president’s State of the Union address on Tuesday, said, “During anxious times, it can be tempting to follow the siren call of the angriest voices. We must resist that temptation.” On Wednesday, she told several media outlets she was referring to Trump, but said it wasn’t personal.
- Do Trump and U.S. Sen. Ted Cruz of Texas finally take off the gloves and go after each other in public, face-to-face? For months, the two front-runners have danced a strange dance where no matter what Trump said, Cruz refused to criticize him. But, as Cruz has gained/taken the lead in Iowa polls, Trump has, well, trumpeted the question of whether Cruz’s Canadian birth makes him eligible to be president. Cruz, again, has not taken the bait.
- Does Jeb Bush keep the heat on Marco Rubio? Bush has taken to focusing his attacks on his fellow Floridian, and not front-runners Cruz or Trump. A Bush super PAC, Right to Rise, has even bought ads criticizing Rubio’s choice of footwear.
- Can Rubio make a dent in the leaders? Rubio, trailing Cruz and Trump by 13 percentage points in Iowa, according to the Real Clear Politics polling average, appears to have plateaued. With two weeks to go before Iowa, he needs to find a message that works. Cruz’s super PAC’s hits on Rubio on immigration haven’t helped.
- Do the other candidates find traction at all? Also on stage, besides Trump, Cruz, Rubio and Bush, will be Ohio Gov. John Kasich, New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie and Dr. Ben Carson. All, as well as Bush, could be facing their final weeks on the campaign trail. After Iowa, the field figures to narrow further. Christie, at least, appears to be making a run in New Hampshire, meaning his campaign could extend beyond Feb.
- Bonus: Do high-profile area shootings become an issue? Tonight’s debate takes place about three miles from where white North Charleston Police Officer Michael Slager allegedly shot Walter Scott, a black motorist, after Scott fled a traffic stop in April. Slager has been charged with murder. The arena is also about nine miles from where nine people were murdered at Mother Emanuel AME Church in Charleston. All of the dead were black. The alleged shooter, also charged with murder, is white.