NORTH CHARLESTON, South Carolina — All eyes are on Donald Trump and Ted Cruz as Republican presidential contenders gather here Thursday night for one of the final debates before the Iowa caucuses.
While there has been plenty of animosity between Trump and most of his rivals, the billionaire businessman and Cruz have been on largely friendly territory for much of the campaign season. That’s changed, however, as the polls in Iowa tighten.
Trump has gone after Cruz over the past week, raising questions about his eligibility to serve as president because of his birth in Canada — an issue Trump said he will raise at the debate, which is sponsored by Fox Business Network.
“I’m sure we’ll get into it tomorrow night,” Trump told a crowd of 11,000 supporters in Pensacola, Florida, on Wednesday.
Cruz has largely responded to Trump with humor — or ignored him altogether — but in recent days, he has started returning fire. He insists he’s eligible for the presidency because he’s a “natural-born” citizen with an American mother. And he’s accused Trump of embodying “New York values.”
“The rest of the country knows what New York values are,” Cruz said on Fox News.
Marco Rubio, Ben Carson, Chris Christie, Jeb Bush and John Kasich will join Cruz and Trump on the prime-time debate stage. Pressure is mounting for someone from the rest of the field to emerge as the clear alternative to Trump and Cruz
As Rubio, Bush, Christie and Kasich all vie for that spot, party leaders are anxiously looking on, hoping that someone will be able to dampen Trump and Cruz’ momentum.
Rubio will likely take fire for his role in the 2013 immigration debate, while even a strong performance from Bush may not be enough to allay concerns that his campaign is at risk of faltering.
For Carson, who enjoyed a brief moment at the top of the national polls, Thursday marks his first debate since a major campaign staff shakeup at the end of the year. Christie and Kasich, both laser-focused on New Hamsphire, will want to use the debate to strengthen their standing there before the February 9 primary.
Meanwhile, Carly Fiorina, Mike Huckabee and Rick Santorum will participate in an undercard debate earlier in the evening. Rand Paul, who didn’t qualify for the main debate, said he would skip the debate.
The Iowa caucuses are scheduled for February 1.
The debate will air on Fox Business Network.