There will be blood at tonight's Republican presidential debate -- at least figuratively.
The four candidates remaining on the island that is the GOP White House race -- Donald Trump, Ted Cruz, Marco Rubio and John Kasich -- will gather in Detroit Thursday evening for their latest showdown in an event hosted by Fox News. The last time the candidates gathered was brutal, often devolving into a shouting match beyond moderators' control. And tonight, it may be even worse.
"Likely, there's going to be some fireworks," said Fox News anchor Bret Baier, who will moderate the debate alongside Megyn Kelly and Chris Wallace, in a segment taped earlier this week.
That's putting it lightly.
Billionaire businessman Trump scored a sweeping victory on Super Tuesday, winning primary voting in seven of 11 states and sending the Republican Party into full panic mode. The clock is ticking for the GOP to put a halt to a man whose candidacy many fear would tear the party apart and all but guarantee a victory for Democrats come the fall. They are putting out all the stops to derail him -- and calling on his opponents to do the same.
"There's a clear frontrunner, and if you want to win, you've got to take him on directly," said Jon Seaton, a Republican political strategist who has worked on the George W. Bush, John McCain and Lindsey Graham presidential campaigns. "There won't be any sneak attacks this time."
Rubio and Cruz have to "open the bomb bay doors and drop all the remaining ordinance," said conservative pundit Charles Krauthammer on Fox Wednesday, adding, "It's the only option."
The Trump "carpet bombing," to steal a term from Krauthammer and Cruz, has already begun.
Florida Senator Rubio has been relentlessly attacking Trump since last week's presidential debate, where he nailed the real estate magnate on immigration hiring, bankruptcy filings and ongoing litigation over Trump University. Nothing has been off the table, from Trump's small hands to his grammatically-challenged tweets. Cruz has been on the attack as well, focusing much of his offensive on challenging Trump's conservative credentials. And with Trump's newly released health care plan, unveiled Wednesday evening, both will have more ammo.
"The super-charged rhetoric will continue," said Chris Arterton, professor of political management at The George Washington University's Graduate School of Political Management.
"We saw a debate last week that got a little bit out of hand, and the attacks started getting very personal," said Adam Geller, a Republican pollster who previously worked for New Jersey Governor Chris Christie's presidential campaign. "These guys can get a little bit pissed off, because people are getting under their skin, and they could lash back. We could see another debate that gets pretty vicious."
While it's clear that Cruz and Rubio are likely to go hard at Trump, what is not so certain is how Trump will react.
The normally boisterous billionaire sounded surprisingly subdued in his Super Tuesday victory speech, with onlookers observing that he is beginning to sound more presidential in an effort to pivot toward the general election. "If there is a slight tonal change in the race, it is that Donald Trump's announcement [Tuesday] night was a lot less flamboyant, a lot less designed to capture the headlines for yet another news cycle," said Arterton.
Thursday, he may again try to appear more statesmanlike and remain above the fray. The question is whether he can.
"Trump has shown no capacity to kind of bite his tongue and let things roll over him when he is attacked," said Arterton.
It is also unclear how the fighting will play with voters.
Geller observed that Trump supporters appear to be energized when he is attacked, adding that Rubio backers also seem to be more excited by his aggression as of late. But it may not sway votes enormously, at least not in the long-term. See: Christie's Marco-bot offensive in New Hampshire.
"It's fair to say that New Hampshire didn't work out quite the way in which we intended, but I also think it's fair to say that the Christie attack on Senator Rubio seemed to have left somewhat of a mark," said Geller. "Some people have called it a kamikaze attack, or a murder-suicide. It did seem to have blunted Rubio's growth for the time being."
And in a campaign season where the news cycle sways daily, if not hourly, even the most intense battles don't stay in the headlines for long.
Rubio and, perhaps to a lesser extent, Cruz, also find themselves walking a tightrope in avoiding turning voters off with what may be perceived as too-vicious attacks, explained Arterton. "Sometimes, adopting the tactics of your opponent hurts you as much as it does your opponent," he said.
He pointed to the 1984 U.S. Senate race in North Carolina between Republican incumbent Jesse Helms and serving Democratic Governor Jim Hunt. Hunt, a moderate and quite popular figure, made what many considered a fatal mistake in his campaign by producing a television ad attempting to link his opponent to Central American death squads. "It was such an appalling ad that it hurt Hunt, in fact, more than it actually hurt Helms," Arterton said. Hunt was defeated in what was the most expensive senate race in U.S. history up to that point.
"Rubio has to watch out with descending to the kind of crude language that Trump has been using," Arterton said.
Adding an extra layer to Thursday's bloodshed will be Kelly's presence. Last time Fox News hosted a debate, Trump skipped the event, in part, due to her participation. (He's still mad about the time she questioned him on his history with women back in August.)
Seaton stressed that Kelly does not pick on Trump specifically, but she also won't let him, or any of the candidates, skirt the issues. "He can complain, but the camera's rolling," he said. "She tries not to let people just talk in sound bites."
Whatever the case, Thursday's debate will likely be the most aggressive of the entire election cycle. Maybe even white knight Kasich will get into the mud (doubtful, but possible).
Is the fighting helpful to voters? Perhaps not. But, "It certainly adds a little more drama," said Seaton.