Republican Debate Preview NPR's political correspondent Mara Liasson gives a preview of tonight's high-stakes Republican debate in South Carolina.

Republican Debate Preview

Republican Debate Preview

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NPR's political correspondent Mara Liasson gives a preview of tonight's high-stakes Republican debate in South Carolina.


We're going to catch up now with the presidential campaign. There is another Republican presidential debate tonight, this one in South Carolina, where next Saturday's Republican primary will be held. Donald Trump and Ted Cruz are the frontrunners; so much of the focus will be on them as they face off in a field of candidates that's suddenly gotten a lot smaller. NPR's national political correspondent Mara Liasson joins us to give us some hints about what to watch for. Hi, Mara.


MARTIN: So can you first bring us up to speed on what kind of week the GOP candidates have been having.

LIASSON: Well, they've been attacking each other, and there are so many different attacks and counterattacks coming from so many different directions, you really need a Venn diagram to keep track of them. On the one hand, there are two conservatives - Trump and Cruz - fighting it out for the conservative lane. And yes, there's Bush and Rubio fighting it out for the moderate establishment lane. John Kasich has less of a footprint in the state, but it's much more complicated than that. Marco Rubio, for instance, has been attacking Cruz and Bush on foreign policy. He's also been attacking Trump for using crude language. Trump recently used a very rude term to question the manhood of Ted Cruz at a rally. Rubio's gone after him for that. And then you have the Cruz-Trump fights, so it's all over the map. This is a very big state. There are a lot of strong conservatives here, evangelicals, military families and a lot of establishment, middle-of-the-road Republicans.

MARTIN: You know, this state has a reputation for bare-knuckles politics, especially the kind that kind of plays out behind the scenes. Is that the kind of thing that we're going to see play out on the stage?

LIASSON: Well, we assume it's playing out behind-the-scenes, but you don't find out about that until the last minute. But yes, I think we will see some of that on stage tonight. You've got this big battle between Trump and Cruz because this is a state that's good for Cruz - lots of evangelicals - but Trump has a big lead. Then you've got Jeb Bush; he got a new lease on life from his fourth-place finish in New Hampshire. He didn't get much more than a new lease on life, so he is really fighting for survival.

MARTIN: Would you talk about Marco Rubio for a minute? I think that - by now, I think even he acknowledges that his performance was poor in the last debate. Is this a make-or-break moment for him, and how do you think he's going to respond to the challenge that he kind of set for himself because of his performance in the last one?

LIASSON: I do think it's a make-or-break moment. He has promised his supporters - he said this will never happen again, so he has put tremendous pressure on himself. The stakes are really high. This was a state he was hoping to win. But after his poor showing in New Hampshire, I think those plans have gone by the wayside. So he has to not only do well here, he has to do really well tonight to erase that memory. And what's interesting for Rubio - he has been a cautious candidate, never attacking unless he absolutely has to. I don't think he can do that tonight.

MARTIN: So Mara, New Hampshire did not provide the clarity that a lot of people thought that it might, even though two candidates did wind up dropping out after New Hampshire, which - you know, Chris Christie and Carly Fiorina. So heading into South Carolina, how familiar and comfortable are South Carolina voters with the candidates who remain? Can any of them tap into past ties to the state?

LIASSON: Yes. Actually, several of them can. You know, Jeb Bush has George W. Bush, who won the state before. And the Bush family has a deep network there. Lindsey Graham, the South Carolina senator, has endorsed Jeb Bush. George W. Bush, his brother, is going to be campaigning for him in the state. Marco Rubio has ties. He's been endorsed by Tim Scott, the other senator. Ted Cruz has ties to the evangelicals in the state, and there are a lot of them. And Donald Trump, last but not least, probably doesn't have any organic ties to the state. But maybe he doesn't need them because as we've learned in these past primaries and caucuses, he doesn't play by the same rules as everyone else.

MARTIN: That's NPR national political correspondent Mara Liasson. Mara, thank you.

LIASSON: Thank you.

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