The pared down Republican field is gathering in Houston on Thursday for the CNN-Telemundo Republican debate.
It’s the last meeting between the contenders, who now are down to Donald Trump, Sen. Ted Cruz, Sen. Marco Rubio, Ohio Gov. John Kasich and Dr. Ben Carson, before the critical March 1 “Super Tuesday” contests. Here’s what to watch for tonight.
Trump on the brink
Donald Trump is coming off big wins in New Hampshire, South Carolina and Nevada and is perilously close to taking a dominant delegate lead in the Republican primaries on March 1. If the field doesn’t narrow quickly and he maintains his support, he could become impossible to catch by mid-March.
Trump took major risks in the last debate in South Carolina, where he accused President George W. Bush of lying about Iraq’s weapons of mass destruction and said Planned Parenthood did “wonderful things” besides abortion. It might have hurt him with late-deciding voters, who broke for other candidates in exit polls, but not enough to deny him a decisive win.
The pressure will be on his rivals Thursday to make things stick this time or risk watching the nomination slip away. The remaining candidates have been reluctant to take on Trump, however, often electing to try and knock each other out first.
Which brings us to our next topic …
Rubio vs. Cruz
The main battle for “last Trump alternative standing” is between Rubio and Cruz, who finished neck-and-neck in South Carolina and Nevada.
Both of them need to drag Trump down, but so far they’ve been more focused on knocking each other out in order to consolidate conservative support. Cruz has tried to remind voters that Rubio co-authored the bipartisan immigration bill that would have put millions of undocumented immigrants on a path to citizenship. Rubio has tried to portray Cruz as weak on defense over his vote for a budget that would have cut military spending. He’s also gained some traction accusing Cruz of dirty tactics – Cruz fired his national spokesman this week after he tweeted a video falsely claiming Rubio disparaged the Bible.
Neither of them is in great shape right now. Rubio has yet to show he can win a state, and Trump could cut off Cruz’s path to the nomination if the billionaire real estate developer's South Carolina performance translates to success in the southern states voting on March 1.
The Latino vote and the damage done
Thursday’s event is the only Republican debate sponsored by a Spanish-language outlet in Telemundo, giving the contenders a chance to speak directly to the network’s Latino viewers.
On the one hand, it’s a historic night. Two of the contenders, Cruz and Rubio, are children of Cuban immigrants. If either wins the nomination, they’d become the first Latino candidate to represent a major party in the general election in a year where the Latino vote is expected to be larger than ever.
But all is not well for the GOP brand. The dominant issue in the race this year has been immigration, which is heavily covered in Spanish media, and the entire field has been pulled hard to the right by Trump, who is running on a platform of mass deportation.
After years trying to sidestep questions of how to handle existing undocumented immigrants, Cruz decisively came out against any path to legal status and has renounced his previous support for major increases in legal immigration as well. Rubio, who already backed away from his bipartisan immigration bill in favor of an enforcement-first approach, is also sounding a harsher note on legal immigration and recently said he would end President Obama’s protections for DREAMers – young undocumented immigrants – as soon as he took office, making them vulnerable to deportation again.
Trump’s favorable rating with Latino voters is in the gutter, but even if he loses the contest the GOP could struggle to repair the damage.