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Candidates prepare to take on Trump in debate

The wait is over. The entire Republican presidential field is gathering in Cleveland on Thursday for the first debate of the cycle.

CLEVELAND — The crowded field of Republican presidential candidates gathered here Thursday for the first debate of the 2016 cycle, with top-tier contenders plotting strategy to draw attention away from polling leader Donald Trump while a host of also-rans who were not invited to the main stage struggle to stay relevant.

Host network Fox News planned to televise two separate events in order to accommodate the field’s 17 major candidates. The top 10 finishers in recent national polling will be in the main 9 p.m. debate, while the remaining seven will appear in a separate forum — dubbed the "kids table" or "happy hour" debate — at 5 p.m. on the same day.

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The decision left the bottom-tier candidates scrambling for relevance. South Carolina Sen. Lindsey Graham, one of those relegated to the earlier time slot, popped into the press room Thursday to do a question-and-answer video for Facebook. "What's my favorite comfort food? Chick-fil-A. Who's the most underrated president? Herbert Hoover," Graham said, going through a list. 

The main event will feature Trump at center stage, flanked by former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush, Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker, former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee, Florida Sen. Marco Rubio, Kentucky Sen. Rand Paul, Texas Sen. Ted Cruz, New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, retired neurosurgeon Ben Carson, and Ohio Gov. John Kasich. The undercard match-up includes Graham, along with former Texas Gov. Rick Perry, former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum, Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal, former Hewlett-Packard executive Carly Fiorina, former New York Gov. George Pataki, and former Virginia Gov. Jim Gilmore. 

The Cleveland event is by far the most prominent venue yet for the Republican presidential field to make their case and the stakes could not be higher. In the 2012 cycle, the 20* televised debates turned front-runners into also-rans (see Perry, Rick) and also-rans into dark horse contenders (see Gingrich, Newt). They also left a string of quotes that followed eventual nominee Mitt Romney into the general election, most notably his “self-deportation” plan for undocumented immigrants, which helped squash his efforts to peel Latino votes from President Obama.

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Advisers to several candidates hinted at how they were preparing to distinguish themselves from Trump, who has been dominating the political conversation for weeks.

Kasich adviser John Weaver told NBC News there was a "tremendous upside" for the Ohio governor in the debate since few voters know much about him. Kasich will stress his everyman appeal and remind voters that the only path to victory for Republicans is winning Ohio's 18 electoral votes, Weaver said. Obama, a Democrat, carried Ohio both in 2008 and 2012. 

Cruz, advisers said, planned to stress his "consistent" conservatism — not an easy task in a field dominated by conservatives. 

"He's not just a campaign conservative," spokesperson Catherine Frazier told NBC News. "He is following through on promises he made for voters when he was elected to the Senate."

Several hopefuls were dealing with campaign setbacks even as the debate loomed. Top aides working for Paul's super PAC were indicted this week on federal campaign finance violations; Perry saw a voter ID law he had championed in his state struck down; a top Christie aide was being sentenced in the so-called "Bridgegate" scandal; and a court filing revealed that Walker was under criminal investigation when he was a Milwaukee County executive. 

The Republican National Committee under chairman Reince Priebus has put in rules this time around to limit the number of debates this year, which party leaders blame for encouraging intra-party warfare in 2012 and dragging down the party’s image.

One side effect, however, is that the buildup ahead of Thursday’s first meeting is even stronger this time. A lot of that has to do with Trump, who has upended the race with his unconventional and frequently inflammatory campaign. 

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No one is sure exactly how Trump will behave. On Sunday, he told Chuck Todd on NBC News’ "Meet The Press" that he’s "not looking to take anybody out or be nasty to anybody,” which would certainly be a departure from his usual approach — in the last month alone he’s denounced Sen. John McCain (R-Az.) for getting captured in Vietnam and revealed Graham’s cell phone number in a stump speech.

Whatever route he goes, Trump is the unquestioned center of gravity on Thursday. Candidates have struggled to gain traction during his ascent and it would not be surprising if some decide their best opportunity to score some headlines the next day is to confront him on the big stage. 

After Trump, the next big question is how the race’s other top tier performers handle their moment in the sun. Bush, the establishment frontrunner and by far the best-funded candidate, will have a chance to showcase his pragmatic style, but could face attacks from the right over his support for immigration reform and Common Core education standards. Walker, who leads recent polls in Iowa, will have a chance to showcase his blue-collar roots and highlight a long list of conservative achievements in Wisconsin over intense Democratic opposition.

Even without Trump monopolizing the spotlight, it’s going to be difficult to stand out given the sheer number of candidates and limited time. Many contenders seemed anxious and unnerved at a 14-candidate summit in New Hampshire on Monday as they raced to spell out their core message in their brief time onstage. 

Based on their performance, one candidate to watch is Cruz, who seemed especially poised on Monday and was a champion in the college debate circuit as a student at Princeton. Like Trump, he has a penchant for provoking a reaction and riling up the party’s base. In the last month alone, he’s clashed with Republicans in the Senate after accusing Majority Leader Mitch McConnell of lying to him about a bill reauthorizing the Ex-Im bank.  

Another candidate on the move is Kasich, who rode a mini-surge in the polls after a late campaign launch in July to clinch the 10th spot over Perry. Kasich is pitching himself as the least ideological candidate in the race — he famously accepted Medicaid funding from Obamacare over intense conservative objections — and the debate will give him a chance to introduce himself to Republican voters who are largely unfamiliar with his record.

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Rubio, who’s been largely sidelined during Trump’s rise, could remind Republicans why he’s one of the best-liked candidates in the field. Paul will get to showcase his libertarian philosophy, but his campaign was rattled on Wednesday by the indictment of two close allies over their alleged involvement in a plan to buy a key endorsement for Ron Paul’s 2012 presidential campaign. Huckabee, who won the Iowa caucus in 2008, could appeal to his natural social conservative base amid an ongoing fight over Planned Parenthood and abortion. 

The next debate, hosted by CNN, will be held on September 16.

— NBC News correspondents Kelly O'Donnell and Hallie Jackson contributed to this report. 

* Correction: An earlier version of this article misstated the number of debates in the 2012 Republican primaries.