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Republican Debate: Which Donald Trump Will Take The Stage Tonight?

Presidential candidates (from left) Marco Rubio, Donald Trump, Ted Cruz and John Kasich at last week's Republican presidential debate.
Geoff Robbins
AFP/Getty Images
Presidential candidates (from left) Marco Rubio, Donald Trump, Ted Cruz and John Kasich at last week's Republican presidential debate.

The remaining four Republican candidates debate once again tonight, this time in Miami. Donald Trump, Ted Cruz, Marco Rubio and John Kasich will be on the stage together for the last time before next Tuesday's big primary night, when voters in Ohio and Florida — Rubio and Kasich's home states — go to the polls. Tuesday is a make or break night for the two of them and tonight's debate is the last chance they have to change the dynamic in a race that has not been going their way.

Here are four things to watch — one for each candidate.

1. How will Trump behave?

Lately, the front-runner has been trying to appear more "presidential," holding news conferences instead of rallies after his primary wins to project more gravitas. In the last debate, he announced that he was flexible and would change his positions if necessary in order to break the gridlock in Washington. But that was just minutes before — and after — he talked about the size of his hands and a certain part of his anatomy. So we're not sure which Trump will show up tonight — the one who calls his opponents stupid, fat, losers, or the one who promised on Tuesday night: "I can be more presidential than anybody other than the great Abe Lincoln. He was very presidential, right?"

2. Does Cruz punch up or down?

Cruz is in the No. 2 spot — only about 100 delegates behind Donald Trump. He has the strongest case to make that if the nominee is not going to be Trump, it should be him. Some establishment Republicans in the #nevertrump movement are coming around to the idea that as much as they dislike Cruz, he might be their only choice. Lindsey Graham, no fan of Cruz's, says it may be time to rally around the Texas senator. Still, Cruz has a total of ZERO endorsements from his fellow senators.

Tonight, does Cruz use his formidable debating skills to try again to cut Trump down to size, or does he attack Rubio and Kasich, whose continued presence in the race prevent him from consolidating the anti-Trump vote?

3. Rubio on the ropes

Now that Jeb Bush has left the race, Rubio has become Trump's preferred punching bag. Rubio tried undermining Trump with insults, but that didn't work. Trump needled him about this on Tuesday night, helpfully pointing out that, "hostility works for some people. It doesn't work for everybody, OK? "

Rubio has the most to lose next week. If he doesn't win his home state of Florida, he will not only give up any shred of viability as a candidate, he could also hurt his political career going forward. Unlike Cruz and Kasich, who have day jobs they can keep, Rubio gave up his Senate seat to run for president and is not running for re-election in the fall.

4. Kasich needs to win something

Kasich has an even worse record in this primary than Rubio, who won in Minnesota and Puerto Rico. Kasich hasn't won anywhere. Tuesday was a disappointment for Kasich. He came in third in Michigan, which is a Rust Belt state like his own Ohio. Kasich once had hopes of winning there or placing a strong second.

Trump is beating him in the polls in Ohio and Kasich has said that if he doesn't win his home state he's done. So, tonight, what does Kasich do to claw his way back into contention? Does he continue his "Mr. Nice Guy" strategy, showing voters that he's a reasonable, not very partisan, not very angry candidate who is as fed up with the antics of his opponents as they are? Or does he actually try to take on Trump?

Granted, that hasn't worked for anyone else but there's not much time left.

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Mara Liasson is a national political correspondent for NPR. Her reports can be heard regularly on NPR's award-winning newsmagazine programs Morning Edition and All Things Considered. Liasson provides extensive coverage of politics and policy from Washington, DC — focusing on the White House and Congress — and also reports on political trends beyond the Beltway.
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