The four Republican candidates trailing Donald Trump will face him in a debate in Houston on Thursday evening in what may be their last best chance to stop the billionaire businessman before he runs away with the GOP presidential nomination — and disrupts their party.
The debate is scheduled to begin at 8:30 p.m. on CNN.
It is the last debate before the Super Tuesday primaries next week, when 11 states and 595 Republican delegates will be at stake. Trump has already won three of the first four GOP contests. If he can win most or all of those 11, he will have a commanding advantage in the Republican race.
The other candidates onstage will include two men who have the best shot at defeating Trump — but who for months have been more concerned with fighting each other in Trump’s shadow. On Thursday, Sens. Marco Rubio (Fla.) and Ted Cruz (Tex.) will have a chance to suspend their fight for second place and attack Trump directly.
The other two candidates will be Ohio Gov. John Kasich, a relative moderate who placed second in New Hampshire, and former neurosurgeon Ben Carson, who has soldiered on for weeks after his chances of winning the nomination vanished.
The Republican field has shrunk considerably since the first debate in August, when there were 17 candidates divided into an “undercard” debate and a main event. But two things remain the same.
Trump will still have the front-runner’s podium, at the center of the stage.
And the rest of the field may still be too crowded to stop him.
“The reality is that, until the field starts to narrow, it’s going to be very, very hard to take [Trump] out,” said Katie Packer, deputy campaign manager for Mitt Romney’s 2012 campaign and the leader of an anti-Trump super PAC, told The Washington Post. “I think people need to step up and start taking on Trump. Front-runners don’t just stumble. People trip them.”
At various times, it appeared that Trump might trip himself, making statements that would bring down other campaigns. One of his first heavily-criticized statements was on Mexico: “the worst elements in Mexico are being pushed into the United States by the Mexican government.” Not backing down from his characterizing Mexican immigrants as criminals and drug carriers, Trump instead has made it a cornerstone of his campaign, promising to build a wall along the U.S. border and getting Mexico to pay for it.
Earlier Thursday, a new video showed former Mexican President Vicente Fox rejecting one of Trump’s signature promises: that the U.S. would build a massive wall along its border with Mexico, and Mexico itself would pay for it.
“I’m not going to pay for that f—ing wall,” Fox said in the interview with Jorge Ramos, an anchor for Univision and Fusion, which was posted online. “He should pay for it. He’s got the money.” Fox was president of Mexico from 2000 to 2006.
Trump, as is his habit, responded with a tweet: “FMR PRES of Mexico, Vicente Fox horribly used the F word when discussing the wall. He must apologize! If I did that there would be a uproar!”
In Thursday’s debate, Trump could face questions about a pair of recent statements — one in defiance of conservative thinking and another in defiance of historical fact.
The first was when Trump appeared to say that he approved of the “individual mandate,” a legal requirement imposed by President Obama’s health-care law, which said that all Americans had to obtain health insurance or pay a penalty. “I like the mandate,” Trump said in a town hall televised on CNN.
Trump later said he wanted to repeal “Obamacare,” including the mandate.
At another event, Trump repeated a story about the U.S. military’s conduct in the Philippine Insurrection, a bloody insurgency that lasted from 1899 to 1902. Trump said that an American general had executed 49 Muslim rebels with bullets dipped in pig’s blood, knowing that pigs are considered unclean in Islam.
“The 50th person, he said, ‘You go back to your people, and you tell them what happened.’ And for 25 years, there wasn’t a problem,” Trump said.
Historians say there’s no proof that ever happened, according to PolitiFact.
For Trump, the good news is that everybody else on the stage — with the possible exception of Carson, whose candidacy increasingly seems to defy logic — thinks that he is the one that should stay in to battle Trump and that everybody else should drop out.
And by the time they agree on who should stay, the race could be effectively over.
Cruz, for instance, makes the argument that he is the only Republican who has actually beaten Trump, in the Iowa caucuses. But he has struggled to replicate that success anywhere else. And he has been attacked relentlessly by Trump, who has accused Cruz of lying and dirty campaigning.
“Why would Texans vote for ‘liar’ Ted Cruz when he was born in Canada, lived there for 4 years and remained a Canadian citizen until recently,” Trump wrote on Twitter.
In fact, he is now facing a tough challenge from Trump in Texas, too, a state where Cruz has dominated GOP politics for several years. With Texas Republicans about to vote on Super Tuesday, some recent polls have shown Cruz in a close race with Trump — although others showed Cruz well ahead.
On Thursday night, Cruz will be speaking to two audiences: national Republicans, whom he needs to overtake Trump, and home-state voters, whom he needs to avoid a humiliating and potentially race-ending defeat next week.
Rubio, by contrast, can argue that he has the support of the GOP’s establishment and big donors. He has been bolstered in the past week by new endorsements, after former Florida governor Jeb Bush — his last rival in the “establishment lane” — dropped out.
But Rubio hasn’t won any states so far: His best showings have been distant second-place finishes in South Carolina and Nevada. And a new Quinnipiac poll showed him trailing Trump badly in his own home state: The poll showed Trump beating Rubio in Florida, 44 percent to 28 percent.
Florida doesn’t vote until March 15, which gives Rubio time to make up that ground. But now, after months in which other Republicans battled each other and let Trump pull away, that time is running out.