MIAMI, FL — Four Republican presidential candidates will face off here Thursday night at CNN’s GOP debate, as they prepare to head into a week that could alter the course of the 2016 election.
Donald Trump will take his usual spot at center stage. With a sizeable lead in the delegate race, the New York billionaire holds the best chance of clinching the Republican Party’s nomination. Next to the GOP front-runner will be Texas Sen. Ted Cruz, who — bolstered by his recent primary victories — is now urgently pleading with the party to help him defeat Trump.
Marco Rubio and John Kasich will also be on stage — and they may have the most to gain or lose. Both men have had a disappointing few months and badly trail Trump and Cruz in the delegate path. Next Tuesday, each man will face the voters of their respective home states of Florida and Ohio. For both candidates, losing those contests will likely be the death knell for their campaigns.
The outcomes in Florida and Ohio will be critical in shaping the course of the GOP race. A Fox News poll released Wednesday showed Kasich with a narrow lead ahead of Trump in Ohio; in Florida, Trump was well ahead of Rubio.
If this poll bears out and Kasich is able to eke out a win in Ohio, that could suddenly make him the establishment favorite and earn him fresh support from party leaders and donors uncomfortable with the idea of Trump or Cruz becoming the nominee.
If Trump, as he is predicting, wins both Florida and Ohio and picks up the 165 delegates that are at stake in the two winner-take-all states, his candidacy would turn into a runaway train.
Thursday’s debate comes one week after a raucous and at times juvenile Fox News GOP debate. That event was dominated by name-calling and insults thrown between Trump, Cruz and Rubio, including a surreal moment in which Trump jokingly defended the size of his manhood.
But there are signs that Trump and Rubio may be ready to tone down their rhetoric.
Trump appeared relatively subdued in his victory speech Tuesday night, passing up opportunities to hit some of his favorite foes. The GOP front-runner has also been calling for the party to come together.
And Rubio, who has taken to taunting Trump in recent weeks, said at an MSNBC town hall on Wednesday that he was “not entirely proud of” his behavior.
“My kids were embarrassed by it and I, you know, if I had to do it again I wouldn’t,” Rubio said.