What to watch for in Saturday's Republican debate

As six Republican candidates prepare for the South Carolina primary, Saturday night debate viewers should watch for fights on topics as different as immigration policy and personal character.

David Goldman/AP Photo/File
In this photo from early February, Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump shakes hands with fellow candidate, former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush, followed by Ohio Gov. John Kasich and, Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla. after a Republican presidential primary debate in Manchester, N.H. The GOP field is suddenly streamlined after the first two voting contests, there’s no greater certainty about who will emerge as the party’s nominee.

As the Republican candidates careen towards the South Carolina primary on Feb. 20, expect immigration and infighting to take center stage.

With one state in the bag each, Texas Sen. Ted Cruz and business mogul Donald Trump are each looking for a second primary win coming into Saturday’s debate on CBS at 9 p.m. Eastern. Both candidates have started to go mean as their rivalry intensifies, and viewers are likely to see that come out during the debate.

Mr. Cruz beat Mr. Trump in Iowa by a narrow margin - just over three percent. Trump sailed to victory in New Hampshire with about 67,000 more votes than Cruz.  

With Real Clear Politics reporting that Trump is polling an average of 17 points ahead of Cruz heading into the South Carolina primary, expect each to go after the other.

The two have been exchanging insults over the airways in a possible preview of the debate. One Cruz ad referred to Trump’s “pattern of sleaze.”

Trump threatened to sue Cruz in return, tweeting that if Cruz, "doesn't clean up his act, stop cheating, & doing negative ads, I have standing to sue him for not being a natural born citizen."

Cruz doesn’t seem shaken. When asked about the threat, Politico reports that Cruz’s response was calm and collected. "There's more than a little irony in Donald accusing anybody of being nasty,” said Cruz, “given the amazing torrent of insults and obscenities that come out of his mouth on any given day."

Cruz is likely referring to Trump’s use of female anatomical invective to describe Cruz earlier this week in New Hampshire. Some observers speculated that Trump’s dirty language could cost him votes in South Carolina, which is not only highly religious, but has also recently been ranked as one of the most polite states in the nation. Others observed that Trump's outspokenness is part of his "authenticity" brand.

Other candidates, including former Gov. Jeb Bush and Florida Sen. Marco Rubio, have been taking digs at Trump’s potty mouth, leading Trump to promise to keep it cleaner in the future. 

Debate viewers can also expect to see a counterattack from the Cruz campaign that focuses on the issues that keep South Carolinians up at night, issues that Cruz says Trump has not always taken a conservative view on.

Politico reports that Cruz plans to present himself during the debate as a Trump alternative for those who feel that Trump has a less than solid record on issues like abortion and health care.

Meanwhile, Senator Rubio will attempt to stage a comeback. He has already commented on Trump’s language, remarking that he finds it inappropriate for his own young children.  

Rubio, usually a smooth speaker, must recover from last week’s debate performance, which raised questions about his lack of experience. 

Immigration will also likely feature highly in Saturday's debate as well. Although the Republican field has narrowed to six candidates, the pack has further divided into two camps on the issue.

For all their animosity, Trump and Cruz both take a hard line on immigration. Neither supports ever granting illegal immigrants citizenship. In the other camp, while Bush and Rubio both support a harsher stance on immigration, they also support paths to citizenship for illegal immigrants in the future.

Cruz has attacked Rubio, including running ads that claim Rubio has partnered “with liberal [Sen.] Chuck Schumer [of New York] to give illegals amnesty.” According to the Cruz campaign, this is considered an “unpardonable sin” in the Republican base.

Rubio has fought back in the past, saying “Ted was a passionate spokesperson on behalf of legalizing people that are in this country illegally.” If Rubio score points on immigration during the debate, it could prove to be a boost for his slipping campaign, which garnered only 11 percent of the votes in New Hampshire, after a strong third place finish in Iowa.

South Carolina is home to several military bases and a military college, The Citadel. Since most of the candidates have come out strong in support of the military, viewers may also see questions that are relevant to military spending.

Meanwhile, most of the other candidates have something to prove of their own.

Former neurosurgeon Ben Carson could come out strong with evangelical rhetoric at the debate. Some political observers say he needs to win the evangelical vote, in order to bolster his campaign. Carson has been pulling out the stops in South Carolina, speaking at events like the Faith and Family Forum.

The Associated Press reports that although Gov. John Kasich finished second in New Hampshire, the Ohio governor needs to perform well enough to hang on until the race moves out of the south and into more familiar territory. He's eschewed personal attacks. 

"I’m not gonna be a pincushion or a marshmallow, but I’m also not gonna spend my time trying to trash over people," Kasich said earlier this week, discussing his approach. 

There are more than votes at stake during Saturday's debate. The GOP’s biggest donors remain largely undecided. Although most do not wish to donate to Trump, Politico reports that the lack of success from more moderate candidates like Rubio and Bush has deterred some from investing. 

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