GOP presidential hopefuls take the stage Thursday night

Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump points to the crowd while speaking at a rally Tuesday, Jan. 12, 2016, in Cedar Falls, Iowa. (AP Photo/Jae C. Hong)
Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump points to the crowd while speaking at a rally Tuesday, Jan. 12, 2016, in Cedar Falls, Iowa. (AP Photo/Jae C. Hong)

WASHINGTON (AP) — A smaller cast of Republican presidential candidates returns to the main debate stage Thursday night, one of the last high-profile opportunities for the White House hopefuls to sway voters before the Feb. 1 Iowa caucus.

The prime-time showdown in South Carolina will highlight a race that has cleaved into two distinct — and increasingly heated — contests.

Republican presidential candidate Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, speaks during a campaign stop on Wednesday, Jan. 13, 2016, in Dorchester, S.C. (AP Photo/Rainier Ehrhardt)
Republican presidential candidate Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, speaks during a campaign stop on Wednesday, Jan. 13, 2016, in Dorchester, S.C. (AP Photo/Rainier Ehrhardt)

After months of civility toward rival Ted Cruz, front-runner Donald Trump is aggressively targeting the Texan, positing that the Canadian-born senator may be ineligible to be president.

Cruz has “a little problem,” Trump told a crowd in Pensacola, Florida, Wednesday night. “I’m sure they’ll get into it tomorrow night.”

Cruz dismisses that claim and is returning the fire, accusing the brash businessman of having “New York values” and questioning his foreign policy credentials.

Four other candidates are fighting to become the more mainstream Republican alternative to the pair of anti-Washington candidates leading the field. Florida Sen. Marco Rubio is seen by some as having a slim edge, opening him up to a torrent of criticism from his rivals about his voting record in the Senate and his immigration policy, as well as the 44-year-old’s youth and relative inexperience.

The Republican divide has given definition to a race that has been otherwise unwieldy and chaotic. Trump’s stranglehold on the lead has confounded many of his rivals and forced party leaders to grapple with the prospect of him eventually becoming the GOP nominee.

Former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush has been among the few establishment Republicans jabbing Trump in recent weeks — a fact his campaign is quick to point out. In a likely preview of his debate tactics, Bush sharply criticized Trump on Wednesday for holding positions on taxes, guns and health care that he says are out of step with conservatives.

“He’s not a conservative,” Bush said. “For a conservative party we need to elect a conservative. For us to fix the mess in Washington, D.C., we have to apply conservative principles.”

Host Fox Business News tightened the qualifying rules for Thursday’s debate, resulting in the smallest group of candidates in the headline event to date. Also on the main stage will be New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie and Ohio Gov. John Kasich, who are battling Rubio and Bush for the establishment vote, as well as retired neurosurgeon Ben Carson, whose standing in the race has steadily fallen.

Republican presidential candidate, New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie speaks during a town hall style campaign stop, Wednesday, Jan. 13, 2016, at Pinardville Fire Station in Manchester, N.H. (AP Photo/John Minchillo)
Republican presidential candidate, New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie speaks during a town hall style campaign stop, Wednesday, Jan. 13, 2016, at Pinardville Fire Station in Manchester, N.H. (AP Photo/John Minchillo)

Christie is enjoying a burst of momentum in New Hampshire, where he’s devoted significant time to courting the state’s quirky blend of moderate and libertarian voters. He’s had strong debate performances in the past, but is likely to face heightened scrutiny from his rivals as a result of his rise in the first-in-the-nation primary state.

The debate rules resulted in businesswoman Carly Fiorina being bumped to the undercard event. Kentucky Sen. Rand Paul was also demoted, but is choosing not to participate in the early evening contest.

To qualify for the debate, a candidate had to place in the top six in an average of recent national polls, or in the top five in an average of recent Iowa or New Hampshire polls. ?

Republicans have one more debate scheduled before voting begins in Iowa, a Jan. 28 event in Des Moines.

WDTN.com provides commenting to allow for constructive discussion on the stories we cover. In order to comment here, you acknowledge you have read and agreed to our Terms of Service. Commenters who violate these terms, including use of vulgar language or racial slurs, will be banned. Please be respectful of the opinions of others and keep the conversation on topic and civil. If you see an inappropriate comment, please flag it for our moderators to review.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s