It’s supposed to be Donald Trump vs. his running-out-of-time Republican rivals. But it just might be the former reality TV show star vs. Megyn Kelly.
Trump will face his remaining three GOP rivals in a debate Thursday night for the first time since he marched through Super Tuesday voting. He also will be facing chief debate nemesis Kelly onstage for the first time since she kicked off the campaign last summer with a tough grilling on his stands on women and since he backed out of a January debate in Iowa where she was again on the panel of questioners.
He ended up narrowly losing Iowa to Sen. Ted Cruz of Texas and later acknowledged that skipping the debate to host his own benefit for veterans likely cost him votes.
This time, he’s agreed to show up for the debate showdown at The Fox Theater in Detroit, which begins at 9 p.m. EST. It promises to be a clash with Cruz, Sen. Marco Rubio of Texas and Gov. John Kasich of Ohio, each insisting he’s a better choice for Republicans than the onetime Democrat. Not there: retired neurosurgeon Ben Carson, who said Wednesday that he wouldn’t be at the debate and didn’t see “a political path forward” after his showing Tuesday.
For Trump, whose success at attracting voters in the early states has triggered panic among establishment Republicans and some conservative groups, it could be an opportunity to show a new side as the most likely nominee, and further solidify support.
“I am a unifier,” Trump said Tuesday night as he basked in Super Tuesday wins. “I know people are going to find that a bit hard to believe, but believe me, I am a unifier.”
He has succeeded in unifying conservative groups, which have stepped up attacks aimed at stopping him from securing the nomination. The Club for Growth and a political action committee, Our Principles, put up ads in Florida on Wednesday casting Trump as unsuitable for conservatives.
The right-leaning Washington Examiner printed an open letter to Republican office holders who may support Trump, warning that his nomination “is likely to cost the party more than just the Senate, some governorships and some state legislatures. It could set the Republican Party back years, perhaps decades.”
For her part, Kelly said she planned to ask Trump the questions she had intended to ask him at the debate that he ducked.
His biggest challenge, she said in an interview with the TV show Extra, will be “reining in the remainder of the Republican Party, those people that feel very alienated by him, if he secures this thing. I don’t think you can completely rule out Rubio and Cruz “ or Kasich, for that matter.”
What those left onstage will face:
CRUZ: Since winning three states Tuesday and four overall, he’s making the case that he’s the only viable alternative to Trump. But the establishment is perhaps even cooler to the fiery senator than to Trump, and none of the candidates are likely to heed his call. Look for him to defend himself against Trump’s assertions that he’s a “liar” and for him to join Trump in going after Rubio, whom he’d like to drop out of the race.
“Now is the time to come together as a people and say we have a winning candidate, let’s come together and beat Donald Trump and then Hillary Clinton,” radio host and Cruz supporter Glenn Beck said Wednesday on his radio show.
TRUMP: Trump has dominated most of the debates with pointed barbs at his rivals, but will his seven-state victories on Super Tuesday lead him to claim the mantle of the presumptive nominee and look to the general election in November by directing most of his insults at Hillary Clinton? He’s primed to rip Rubio, whom he’s sought to belittle for his youth and inexperience.
RUBIO: His disappointing showing Tuesday – he won only Minnesota – has heightened pressure on him to win his home state of Florida, where polls show him trailing Trump ahead of the March 15 contest.
Rubio had hoped that his performance at the last debate would give him an edge on Trump, as he repeatedly sought to underscore Trump’s thin policy proposals. But his post-debate performance on the campaign trail – disparaging Trump with insults about his hair, his makeup and whether he wet his pants onstage or has unusually small hands – was widely panned.
KASICH: Now 0-15 in caucuses and primaries, he’s going to hang on until his home state votes March 15, along with other Midwestern and Kasich-friendly states such as Illinois and Missouri. He’s struggled to stand out in debates and with Trump moving ever closer to the nomination, he’s likely to face increased pressure to leave the race.