WASHINGTON (Sinclair Broadcast Group) — The sixth Republican presidential debate is taking place less than three weeks before the Iowa caucus with Donald Trump still holding a firm national lead. The race in Iowa remains tight, though, and there is still plenty of time for candidates to change voters' minds.
Some things to watch for during the Fox Business debate at the North Charleston Coliseum in South Carolina Thursday night:
SEVEN AND COUNTING
The lineup of candidates in the main debate topped out at 11 in September and has slowly crept down ever since, as some dropped out of the race and others were banished to the undercard debates.
With Carly Fiorina and Sen. Rand Paul (R-KY) slipping below the polling threshold Fox Business set for Thursday's debate, there will be seven candidates on stage at 9 p.m. ET: Donald Trump, Sen. Ted Cruz (R-TX), Sen. Marco Rubio (R-FL), Dr. Ben Carson, Jeb Bush, Chris Christie, and John Kasich.
Debate experts see potential risks and benefits for the candidates in this scenario. They will have more time to make their case to voters, but they could also face more detailed policy questions and be expected to give longer answers.
Aaron Kall, director of debate at the University of Michigan, said Trump may be vulnerable if he has to talk in depth about policy, pointing to his awkward answer on the nuclear triad at the CNN debate in December.
Kall predicted the absence of Paul and Fiorina will be noticeable. They were two of the candidates most willing to take on Trump directly in previous debates. Paul also got into memorable fights with Christie, Cruz, and Rubio in the past.
The size of the Republican field this year is something of a historical anomaly, according to Alan Schroeder, a journalism professor at Northeastern University and author of "Presidential Debates: 50 Years of High-Risk TV." Seven candidates is still a relatively large number to have on stage at this point in the cycle, but it will be closer to a traditional race.
Republican strategist Ford O'Connell said the increased time in the spotlight Thursday could be particularly problematic for Trump.
"If you're Donald Trump, the field can't get large enough," he said. Trump's goal will likely just be not to damage his standing in the polls, so the less time he has to talk, the better.
CRUZ IN CONTROL?
While Sen. Ted Cruz held a lead over Trump in Iowa in most late December polls, the latest surveys show his advantage shrinking or even disappearing. Many analysts still see Cruz as the likeliest winner in Iowa due to his evangelical support and his strong ground organization there.
Trump has spent the last couple of weeks incessantly questioning whether Cruz is even eligible to run for president, though. Cruz has been largely dismissive of Trump's doubts that he qualifies as a natural-born citizen, but that may be harder to do with the two men standing next to each other on stage.
A New York Times report about loans he failed to disclose during his campaign for his Senate seat also increased pressure on Cruz Wednesday. The candidate insisted it was an inadvertent error, but it could come up at the debate.
"I'd be lying if I said all eyes won't be on Donald Trump and Ted Cruz," O'Connell said.
Cruz has lashed out at moderators in the past for trying to force candidates into a "cage match," but it may be too late in the race to show that kind of restraint. He has increased his attacks on Trump in speeches and interviews.
Those expecting fireworks between Cruz and Trump at the debate could walk away disappointed, though.
"I don't predict them getting into a major imbroglio on stage," Kall said. The rhetoric may be escalating on the campaign trail, but Trump has shown much more restraint when face-to-face with his opponents on stage, and Cruz is still angling to poach Trump's supporters.
Schroeder agreed that Trump has not been "super confrontational" in the debates, so the dynamic may not change drastically.
"I would guess that they're each going to be a little cautious about the other and probably not have that level of direct engagement," he said.
"They're the front-runners, they have the most to lose, and their voting bases are so similar," Kall said.
O'Connell cautioned against the non-confrontational approach for Cruz. "You cannot look timid and complacent, particularly on the citizenship issue."
Cruz may have hoped to solidify his support before pivoting to take on Trump, but if that has not happened yet, he cannot wait any longer.
"He's delayed it long enough," O'Connell said, "and now the inevitable is coming."
Despite losing some ground, the Texas senator can still claim some degree of "Cruz-mentum," though. On Wednesday, he scored a coveted endorsement from "Duck Dynasty" star Phil Robertson.
Even if Cruz and Trump restrain themselves from the brawl many in the media are predicting, the front-runner is likely to take fire from the rest of the candidates on stage, most of whom are vying to be the strongest establishment alternative to him.
Trump may have a sizable lead in New Hampshire, doubling the numbers of his closest rival, but the support for Rubio, Bush, Christie, and Kasich combined far exceeds his, suggesting there is an appetite for a more moderate candidate there.
Attacking Trump has been "a historically hazardous occupation" in the race so far, O'Connell said, so there may be some risk for any candidate in engaging with him.
O'Connell predicted an "establishment cage match" between Rubio and the three governors, though. The key to Rubio's strength is being seen as the establishment mantle-holder, and Bush's road back to being a contender is to cast doubt on that image.
The candidates and their Super PACs have been attacking each other in increasingly hostile ads lately. Kall agreed that Bush could benefit from taking on Rubio and winning, but he could be damaged if Rubio outmaneuvers him as he did at a debate last fall.
Bush got some good press out of challenging Trump at the last debate in December, but that did not translate into improved poll numbers for him. He may try again, though.
For Trump, the best case scenario is to let the establishment candidates cannibalize each other.
"He probably just needs to keep doing his own thing here and stay out of the way of the other candidates," Schroeder said.
"Whatever he's been doing up to this point seems to be working out pretty well for him."
Carson told CNN earlier this week that he will have "more pep in my step" at Thursday's debate.
"You're going to see me not being quite so polite as to never say anything unless somebody asks me something," Carson said Tuesday.
The debates have not been Carson's strongest moments, and he has struggled to regain traction since dropping in the polls in the wake of the Paris and San Bernardino terrorist attacks. After a tumultuous December in which he replaced his top campaign staffers, he may be looking to mount a comeback.
Some are skeptical that a more aggressive Ben Carson is something GOP voters actually want to see, though.
"We've really never seen him on the attack, on the offensive, so I'm not really sure how that will play," Kall said. He added that Carson does need to do something radical to turn his numbers around, though.
"I don't think it's really in his nature to be an attack dog," Schroeder said. The change could backfire for Carson and look desperate.
"You don't want to reinvent yourself as a debater during a debate."
Carson may simply have peaked too early in the race.
"It's unfortunate for him," O'Connell said. "He ran into the Trump buzzsaw and didn't know how to deal with it."
THE ANGRIEST VOICES
In a debate held in North Charleston, the words of South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley in her response to the State of the Union Address may echo more strongly than they have in some corners of the Republican Party.
"During anxious times, it can be tempting to follow the siren call of the angriest voices," Haley said on Tuesday night. "We must resist that temptation."
Haley confirmed afterward that Trump was one of the "angry voices" she was referring to. Trump dismissed her criticism in a CNN interview Wednesday, but questions about tone and demeanor are likely to surface Thursday night.
Trump made the case that his anger is justified and that anger is what the GOP base wants. His poll numbers do make that point hard to dispute at the moment.
Bush took on Trump's attitude in a new ad calling him a "jerk" for mocking a disabled journalist.
Trump insisted to CNN's Erin Burnett Wednesday that the anger would disappear quickly if he wins the election. He later spent several minutes of his campaign rally ranting about whoever set up his microphone.
TIME RUNS OUT
With only 18 days until Iowa and New Hampshire one week after that, candidates are quickly running out of opportunities to showcase themselves for primary voters. Thursday's debate and the next one on January 28 on Fox News will be the last chances to speak to millions of voters before the first polls open.
"We're less than three weeks from voting," O'Connell said. "Cruz knows he has to win Iowa, Rubio knows he has to have a good showing."
"It's kind of do or die now," Kall said.
As the candidates have drawn more distinctions with each other and sharpened their attacks on the campaign trail, he expects the moderators will try to emphasize those disputes to maximize the drama.
"People really have to start deciding," Schroeder said, "and debates are a good way to arrive at that decision."
Previous debates may have afforded opportunities for candidates to introduce themselves to voters or establish name recognition, but this one will be about closing the deal.
"We're really down to the time to put up or shut up here," Schroeder said.
As the main debate roster shrinks, so too does the undercard. There will only be three candidates participating in the 6 p.m. ET event: Carly Fiorina, Mike Huckabee, and Rick Santorum.
Sen. Rand Paul qualified for the undercard debate but he has said he will not attend. It could still prove to be worth watching, though.
"They each get more airtime so it will probably be a more substantive conversation...I think it could actually be fairly entertaining," Schroeder said.
The three candidates are down in the polls, but they are all skilled debaters who know how to communicate on television. That said, Schroeder still expects viewership to be low.
Fiorina excelled in the first undercard debate last summer and a similar performance could potentially propel her back to the main stage for the January 28 debate. O'Connell thinks she may be playing a longer game and setting herself up as a vice presidential pick.
"If you're a Carly supporter, there's a reason to watch," O'Connell said.
"For the other two, it's unfortunate for them. It's just not their cycle."
As for Paul, he is offering his own counter-programming to the main debate with an online town hall starting at 9 p.m.