Five things to watch at Texas's GOP debate

Thursday evening’s Republican debate in Houston may be the last chance for Donald TrumpDonald TrumpClinton mocks Trump with her own 3 a.m. tweetstorm Clinton’s strategy: Get under Trump’s skin Trump: 'I'm considering' going after Clintons' marriage MORE’s rivals to stop him.

The debate, hosted by CNN, Telemundo and Salem Radio, is the last major event before Super Tuesday, when Republicans in 11 states and vote.

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Trump has won three of the four contests held so far and leads polls in almost all the states that will vote on March 1. A strong Super Tuesday could see him build up unstoppable momentum.

The state of the race could lead to fireworks at the debate. Here are five things to watch.

How hard do Marco RubioMarco RubioClinton’s strategy: Get under Trump’s skin Rubio, Heck help out at car crash scene Florida paper endorses Clinton, writes separate piece on why not Trump MORE and Ted CruzTed CruzJudge rejects attempt to stop internet oversight transfer Tech groups file court brief opposing internet transition suit Cruz criticizes federal law enforcement on terrorism MORE go after Trump?

Trump’s two main challengers have nothing left to lose. Will they throw the kitchen sink at Trump — and, if so, will it have any effect? 

Criticisms of Trump to date have generally hit on one of three themes: that he is not electable in a general election; that he is not a true conservative; or that his business record is a lot more checkered than he suggests.

None of those attacks have stuck. The GOP grassroots seems willing to take a chance on Trump in the general election, and polls show him in a close hypothetical race with Democratic front-runner Hillary ClintonHillary Rodham ClintonClinton mocks Trump with her own 3 a.m. tweetstorm Clinton’s strategy: Get under Trump’s skin Clinton critiques Sanders fans in leaked audio MORE

Meanwhile, the business mogul has bested the more overtly ideological Cruz among evangelical voters in every one of the first four states except Iowa.

2012 GOP nominee Mitt Romney on Wednesday suggested that Trump’s tax returns could contain a “bombshell,” an attack that the front-runner has batted back by suggesting that there is nothing surprising in his personal finances other than, “I pay a lot of tax and the government wastes the money.” 

But it will be interesting to see if Rubio and Cruz try to take up that cudgel.

A related element to watch: Does Rubio go after Trump with both barrels? The Florida senator has trained most of his fire on Cruz in previous debates but that approach only helps him to second place at best, and that is not a route to the nomination.

Does Trump mix it up or try to glide above the fight?

According to the conventional laws of politics, a front-runner such as Trump would have more to lose than to gain by getting involved in heated exchanges. Then again, the businessman’s performance every step of the way has defied convention.

In the final debate before the South Carolina primary, Trump gave perhaps his most combative performance, lambasting former President George W. Bush and implying that his administration had lied the U.S. into the Iraq War. That charge, and several other verbal tussles, did Trump no harm at all in the Palmetto State primary.

The question is whether that emboldens him to take things even further on Thursday night or tone down his act.

What part does the crowd play?

The audience at the South Carolina debate, in Greenville, made its displeasure with Trump clear again and again. One reason for that became clear only in the aftermath: around 900 of the 1,600 available tickets had been given to local and national Republican officials — the demographic that is the core of the opposition to Trump.

The businessman pushed back on the booing that came his way on-stage and his spokesman made a similar point afterward.

“I think the RNC does a terrible job in allocating the tickets, to be honest with you. … They give them to the lobbyists and all the special interests,” Corey Lewandowski told reporters.

The crowd could also have another role, however. Houston is home turf for Cruz, so he will be expecting a warm reception. 

That dynamic has manifested itself in earlier points in the cycle: the first Republican debate was held in Cleveland, Ohio, and home-state Gov. John Kasich had probably his best night, being borne along by the audience’s support.

The immigration question: Who benefits?

Telemundo’s involvement in Thursday’s debate, plus its location in a border state, virtually guarantees that immigration will be a significant issue.

Who benefits from that? 

Cruz and Rubio have tangled on the topic several times before, with the former suggesting the latter is too liberal and Rubio hitting back with charges that Cruz has also nuanced his positions at times in the past. But there has been no clear winner from those exchanges.

Trump could end up being the main beneficiary. His proposal to build a wall along the southern border is often derided by his media critics but it appears to be wildly popular with the Republican base.

Does Trump claim victory already?

In his triumphant speech after Tuesday’s Nevada caucuses, Trump was even more confident than usual that he would wind up as the Republican nominee. After outlining the various states that were still to hold contests over the next two months, he added, “We might not even need the two months, folks, to be honest.”

No one knows if he will be more circumspect than that on Thursday night in Houston. But the reality is that he is the red-hot favorite now, and it will be revealing to see how he, and his rivals, grapple with that in their remarks.