Five things to watch in Detroit GOP presidential debate

Chad Livengood
Detroit News Lansing Bureau

Three Republican presidential candidates will again share a debate stage with front-runner Donald Trump, this time Thursday night in Detroit, and the stakes couldn’t be higher.

U.S. Sens. Ted Cruz and Marco Rubio as well as Ohio Gov. John Kasich will continue competing to be the party’s alternative to Trump, the billionaire businessman who has racked up an early delegate lead in his march toward the Republican Party’s nomination. Detroit native and retired neurosurgeon Ben Carson said Wednesday he won’t attend the debate, effectively bowing out of the presidential contest.

Here are five things to watch for when the candidates face off at 9 p.m. Thursday on the Fox News Channel in a live debate from Detroit’s historic Fox Theatre:

■Rubio vs. Trump Part II: After largely avoiding Trump for months, the Florida senator has begun aggressively attacking the bombastic New York billionaire, calling him a “con artist” for some of his business practices and policy positions. Trump has responded in kind, calling Rubio “little Marco” and “the loser of the night” in Tuesday’s 12-state Super Tuesday contests (before Rubio won Minnesota).

Rubio has been hammering Trump in recent days for refusing to denounce an implicit endorsement from Ku Klux Klan leader David Duke during a Sunday CNN interview. Trump claimed ignorance of what Duke, a former KKK grand dragon, stood for. But in a Friday appearance in Texas and at other events since the CNN interview, Trump has curtly disavowed the Duke endorsement.

Expect Rubio to reignite that fire. In a Wednesday Detroit News editorial board interview, he said he couldn’t believe Trump had difficult disavowing Duke in the CNN interview.

■Cruz’s case: Cruz won his home state of Texas and neighboring Oklahoma, re-energizing a campaign that had gone winless since the Feb. 1 Iowa caucuses. But he didn’t have the great showing in other Southern states that his campaign once promised to win, losing to Trump in Alabama, Arkansas, Georgia, Tennessee and Virginia.

“Cruz’s pathway at this stage in the game is very limited. This is a guy who was going to sweep through the southern states,” Republican consultant Paul Welday said Wednesday.

But with the second-highest number of delegates, Cruz will likely argue that he is better suited to go one-on-one against Trump as he tries to nudge Rubio and Kasich to the campaign exit door. Cruz also has signaled he will go after Trump for the front-runner’s less-than-conservative past policy pronouncements on anything from abortion to national health care.

■Avoiding the fight: Ohio Gov. John Kasich has steered clear of sparring with other candidates in past debates, opting to talk about his record and position himself as the alternative to the downright personal insults Trump, Rubio and Cruz have recently been trading.

Kasich will likely stay on message Thursday night, talking about the 400,000 jobs Ohio has gained since he took office in 2011 and making a Midwesterner appeal to residents of a neighboring Rust Belt state. He also hasn’t won any primaries or caucuses.

■Auto industry: Trump has railed against Ford Motor Co. off and on for months, including in a Detroit News interview, over the Dearborn automaker’s expansion of manufacturing facilities in Mexico. He has gone so far as to threaten a punitive 35 percent tax on Ford for every car or part the company builds in Mexico and ships back to the United States — a move that would require congressional approval.

Expect him to raise this issue while the candidates debate trade policy.

The debate moderators could raise the 2008-09 auto bailout and where each candidate stood on the rescue of General Motors and Chrysler. It could give Cruz or Rubio the chance to criticize Trump for first supporting the bailout as a New York businessman before becoming more neutral as a candidate for president.

■Flint: The debate is in Detroit, but the lead-contaminated water in the state’s second-largest black-majority city is on the minds of Michiganians.

State Democratic Party Chairman Brandon Dillon said Thursday that Republican presidential hopefuls have “either dodged, deflected, been evasive or pretended they didn’t know anything about it. I don’t think they can pretend not to know anything any longer.” Candidates have addressed the issue when asked, but it is not a pressing issue on the campaign trail because it involves the Republican administration of Gov. Rick Snyder.

One of the Fox News debate moderators, Bret Baier, told The Detroit News that Fox usually asks at least one question about an issue relevant to the state where a debate is held. And Baier noted he asked Kasich about Flint in a prior debate.

Jonathan Oosting contributed.

GOP debate

Time: 9 p.m.

Where: Fox News Channel

Other ways to follow the debate: The Detroit News will provide a running summary of the questions and candidate answers at