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Cruz, Rubio, Trump face off in crucial GOP debate

A rapidly narrowing Republican field was slated to go to battle Thursday night in the last debate before “Super Tuesday” — with time running out on fading candidates Ted Cruz and Marco Rubio, who hope to knock Donald Trump from his perch as front-runner.

The CNN/Telemundo-hosted debate from Houston — the first since the once-crowded GOP field shrank to five — is expected to give Cruz an immediate home-field advantage, which the Texas senator has vowed to use.

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In the hours leading up to the debate, Cruz, coming off three consecutive third-place primary finishes after a win in the Iowa caucuses, provided viewers a preview of the kind of attacks he plans to use, blasting his two main competitors as “Washington dealmakers.”

GOP front-runner Donald Trump has indicated he's anticipating an ugly fight at the debate — and said he was more than ready to punch back at anyone who needles him.Steve Helber/AP

GOP front-runner Donald Trump has indicated he’s anticipating an ugly fight at the debate — and said he was more than ready to punch back at anyone who needles him.

But it might be Rubio — to whom dozens of establishment Republicans have thrown their support in recent days in an effort to build a stronger anti-Trump movement — who faces the most pressure for a breakout performance.

“The vast and overwhelming majority of Republicans do not want Donald Trump to be our nominee,” Rubio — who has been reluctant to attack either Cruz or Trump in past debates — said on NBC Thursday morning.

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However, with no actual victories so far in the 2016 cycle, Rubio must use Thursday’s debate to prove to voters — not the lawmakers who’ve endorsed him —  that he would be the party’s best chance to take on the eventual Democratic nominee.

Also on the stage will be retired neurosurgeon Ben Carson and Ohio Gov. John Kasich, both of whom are registering below 8% in most national polls. Neither candidate has a viable path to the nomination anymore.

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Time is running out for Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas) to show Republican voters he can be the anti-Trump candidate in the race.John Locher/AP

Time is running out for Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas) to show Republican voters he can be the anti-Trump candidate in the race.

Meanwhile, Trump, who picked up a staggering 46% of the vote in the Nevada caucuses Tuesday, indicated that he was anticipating an ugly fight at the debate, and that he was more than ready to punch back at anyone who needles him.

“I seem to have a very good track record when (competitors) do go after me,” he said Wednesday night.

Thursday’s debate, with Spanish language network Telemundo as a co-host, is the only one of the current GOP cycle that will be aimed at a Latino audience, meaning that immigration could be an issue that comes up repeatedly.

Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) has attracted dozens of endorsement from establishment Republicans in recent weeks, as they've tried to build a stronger anti-Trump movement, but he still faces an uphill battle to attract support from GOP voters.STEVE MARCUS/REUTERS

Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) has attracted dozens of endorsement from establishment Republicans in recent weeks, as they’ve tried to build a stronger anti-Trump movement, but he still faces an uphill battle to attract support from GOP voters.

The event is also the last such opportunity for the candidates to speak to a national audience before “Super Tuesday” on March 1, when GOP voters in 12 states and American Samoa head to the polls.

Trump, having come in first place in the last three states, is favored in many of those states, according to a slew of polls.

With News Wire Services

Tags:
ted cruz ,
donald trump ,
marco rubio ,
super tuesday ,
2016 election ,
media ,
houston ,
texas ,
ben carson ,
john kasich ,
nevada caucuses

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