Five things to watch for in tonight's GOP debate

Five things to watch for in tonight's GOP debate
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Saturday night’s Republican debate on CBS is the first time the candidates have convened since Donald TrumpDonald John TrumpRed states find there’s no free pass on Medicaid changes from Trump Trump meets with Moon in crucial moment for Korea summit The Memo: Trump flirts with constitutional crisis MORE’s overwhelming victory in the New Hampshire primary. 

Six candidates will stand on stage in Greenville, S.C. – Trump, Ted CruzRafael (Ted) Edward CruzSenators near deal on sexual harassment policy change Senate GOP urges Trump administration to work closely with Congress on NAFTA Five Republican run-offs to watch in Texas MORE, Marco RubioMarco Antonio RubioRubio: Kaepernick deserves to be in the NFL Congress — when considering women’s health, don’t forget about lung cancer Anti-Maduro Venezuelans not unlike anti-Castro Cubans of yore MORE, Jeb Bush, John Kasich and Ben Carson. 

South Carolina votes on Feb. 20 and the GOP establishment is desperate to coalesce around a single establishment candidate out of Kasich, Bush, and Rubio, making this debate a crucial one to establish primacy in that lane and to set up media momentum leading into the primary. 

Here are five things to watch. 

1. How nasty will the Trump-Cruz feud get?

The Trump-Cruz political friendship, which lasted some five months, is over. Their attacks have already included Trump's suggestion that Cruz isn't qualified to serve as president because of his Canadian birth, and a vulgerism lobbed by the GOP frontrunner just before the New Hampshire primary.

Their fight could get even uglier on Saturday night.

Trump is likely to be asked about his rhetoric — he called Cruz a pussy on Monday night.

The language has been targeted by all of his rivals, who don't think it will go over well with South Carolina's evangelical constituency.

Cruz appeared Thursday at a church rally with talk show host Glenn Beck, and the two made news by colorfully portraying Trump as a phony Christian. 

For a sense of how this might escalate on Saturday night, consider that Trump is now publicly questioning Cruz's faith and threatening to sue the Texas senator for “not being a natural born citizen.”     

2. Can Rubio recover?

Marco Rubio has more riding on tonight’s debate than anyone else on stage.

After his better-than-expected third place finish in Iowa, pundits – and conspicuously Rubio himself – were confidently predicting that the junior senator from Florida could unify the Republican Party and become an acceptable candidate to both its center and hard right base. 

But Rubio, considered a polished debater, was ridiculed mercilessly by New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie for robotically repeating canned lines, and he finished in a disappointing fifth place in the Granite State.

Rubio doesn’t have Christie to worry about now since the New Jersey governor dropped out of the race on Wednesday. Yet the stakes are high. He needs a comeback.

Rubio seems to understand this, and he's told his supporters in numerous emails over the past week that his debate performance in New Hampshire will never happen again. His rivals will likely do their utmost to ensure that "robot Rubio" becomes the tagline of his campaign.

3. Can Kasich shift out of New Hampshire mode and develop a southern message?

Ohio Gov. John Kasich has spent the last six months running “for president of New Hampshire,” quips Anthony Scaramucci, a New York financier and Jeb Bush fundraiser. 

Scaramucci is not wrong. Kasich unapologetically centered his campaign in the Granite State, doing more than 100 town halls and giving South Carolina barely a second look. His brand of compassionate conservatism – which involves praising and welcoming Democrats – is the polar opposite of the rhetoric dominating the GOP race.

Kasich's tone worked well in New Hampshire, where voters tend to reward unconventional candidates (think John McCainJohn Sidney McCainOvernight Defense: Pompeo lays out new Iran terms | Pentagon hints at more aggressive posture against Iran | House, Senate move on defense bill Senate GOP urges Trump administration to work closely with Congress on NAFTA Sarah Sanders: ‘Democrats are losing their war against women in the Trump administration’ MORE in 2000), but many in the Republican establishment remain skeptical that his optimistic message and shoestring finances can travel well nationally.

South Carolina is Kasich’s first big test to see if that second place finish in New Hampshire was anything but an aberration, although he has been trying to tamp down on expectations in the Palmetto state.

He has to try to appeal to constituencies that exist in much larger numbers in South Carolina: Namely, veterans and evangelical Christians. He will also have to adapt to – or survive — South Carolina’s famously brutal style of politics.

 4. Where will Jeb focus his attacks?

South Carolina is Bush country. Bush 41 and 43 have huge followings there, and the Bush campaign is telling anyone who’ll listen that the former Florida governor has a better ground game in South Carolina, and more local support there — particularly among the sizeable veterans community — than any of his competitors.

After finishing in a respectable-enough fourth in New Hampshire, Bush is now making an electability argument. He's saying that it's him – not Rubio or Kasich – who can take it to Cruz and Trump and that his case begins in South Carolina.

Bush has a choice in this debate. Does he play exclusively within the establishment lane and direct his attacks toward Kasich and Rubio?

Or does he try to elevate himself by going after Trump and Cruz, thus proving to skeptical donors and center-right voters that he has what it takes to take down these two bombastic – and, for many, unacceptable – front-runners. If he does the latter, however, he risks a quick take-down by Trump, as has happened in past debates. 

5. Could Ben Carson be a ‘suicide bomber’ to Cruz like Chris Christie was to Rubio?

For a brief time late last year, the retired neurosurgeon, Ben Carson, sat atop the Republican polls. But after a series of foreign policy missteps and a poorly handled staffing shake-up, Carson is now almost an afterthought.

But there is one reason why Carson could still be dangerous to at least one of his competitors. Carson has unimpeachable credibility with a large number of Christian evangelicals – often it seems like he is speaking on a separate channel to them. And after feeling burned by some dirty Cruz campaign tactics in Iowa, Carson has seemed determined to ruin Cruz’s standing among conservative Christians. 

Carson is still understood to be infuriated with the Cruz campaign spreading false rumors on Iowa caucuses night that he was dropping out of the race, and he claims to believe that the tactic stole a huge number of votes from his campaign.

He held a recent press conference at the National Press Club in Washington and, quoting Bible verses, invited people to question Cruz’s integrity.

While most commentators think Carson has no chance of winning the Republican nomination, what he could do in this debate, which could be his last, is abandon his gentle instincts and launch an aggressive, biblically-motivated attack against Cruz. Carson, like Christie, could leave the race with his main legacy being his infliction of profound damage against one of the front-runners, or, as media mogul Rupert Murdoch put it, become a “suicide bomber.”