WASHINGTON (AP) — Looks like Ted Cruz may get that cage match with Donald Trump that the Texas senator had vowed to avoid — and it's crowded in there.
The two seem locked in battle for primacy in Iowa, the first state to vote on the GOP nomination in just a few weeks. But first, on Thursday night, five of their rivals join the potential brawl onstage at the GOP presidential debate in South Carolina.
Expect the candidates — Trump, Cruz, Marco Rubio, Ben Carson, Chris Christie, Jeb Bush and John Kasich — to discuss matters of security, the nation's economy, health care and more as they jockey for positioning in Iowa, which votes Feb. 1, and New Hampshire, Feb. 9.
If the bickering becomes hard to follow, try this exercise: Hark back a mere 48 hours to President Barack Obama's final State of the Union address. Picture each of the GOP hopefuls standing at the same storied podium a year from now, delivering the traditionally high-minded address to the nation.
The Obama White House, which purposely sought an earlier-than-usual address this year, hopes that vision doesn't sit well with most voters. Rest assured, the president's party gets its turn at the next Democratic debate, on Sunday. And Republicans get the last word on early debates two weeks from now at the final confrontation before the Iowa caucuses.
Here are some things to watch at the debate sponsored by Fox Business at 9 p.m. EST:
TRUMP vs. CRUZ
The so-called "bromance" long over, Trump and Cruz are competing fiercely for conservative voters in Iowa. Look for more of the yes/no fight over whether Cruz's eligibility to be president is in question, given his birth in Canada. Cruz was born to an American mother, and most legal scholars agree that makes him a "natural born citizen" — a requirement by the Constitution for people to be U.S. president. Trump insists that's not been settled and says Democrats are likely to file a lawsuit over the matter should the GOP nominate Cruz. The Texas senator, a constitutional expert, says there's little danger of that because the law is clear.
After saying for months that he didn't want to get into a "cage match" with Trump, Cruz on Tuesday tried out a series of attacks on the billionaire developer, casting him as a less-than-pure conservative who is poorly prepared for the challenges facing the U.S. from abroad. It's unclear whether the Texas senator will keep up the barrage — or back off and refuse to engage Trump before a national audience. Cruz has given him a pass before.
BUSH vs. TRUMP
Look for the former Florida governor, fading from the front of the pack, to cast himself as the only Republican presidential hopeful brave enough to go after Trump. In recent days, he's criticized the real estate developer on taxes, guns and health care, saying Trump would not apply conservative principles to the nation's problems. Bush also is expected to highlight his multi-point plan to fight Islamic State militants.
EVERYONE vs. CRUZ
Given Cruz's rise in Iowa and New Hampshire polls, look for more piling on. Rubio is a likely agitator, given the rivalry that's sprung up between the two over what to do about the 11 million people in the country illegally, as well as how to tighten the nation's borders. Both are sons of Cuban-born fathers. The confrontation, widely expected in the last debate, didn't happen.
Such a confrontation could benefit Rubio, who presents himself as an appealing alternative to Trump and Cruz for the wide swath of undecided Republican voters in Iowa. The national stage would give him a platform to show off his foreign policy and national security expertise and appeal to more moderate Republicans in New Hampshire and the GOP establishment nationally.
Expect the bombastic New Jersey governor to try to stay out of the bickering and make the case that he gets Americans' concerns over security and the economy. He's focused on a good showing in New Hampshire.