5 things to watch in Thursday's GOP debate

The Republican presidential candidates are debating tonight in South Carolina, just 18 days before the first votes are cast in Iowa.

Seven candidates are now on the main stage  - Donald Trump, Ted Cruz, Marco Rubio, Ben Carson, Jeb Bush, John Kasich, and Chris Christie.

At an earlier debate, Mike Huckabee, Carly Fiorina and Rick Santorum went at it. Kentucky Sen. Rand Paul skipped that debate after he didn't meet the Fox Business channel's criteria for the main debate.

You can listen to special coverage tonight starting at 6 p.m on AM 1290 and News 95.7 WHIO. We will have special guests, carry the first debate starting at 6, followed by special coverage and then the main debate at 9, followed by post debate analysis. It's also streaming online at whio.com

Here's some things I'll be looking for during the debate tonight:

The fight to be the alternative to Donald Trump

Trump leads in national polls and in New Hampshire, Cruz leads in Iowa and everyone else is down the list. Cruz is going after the evangelical conservative vote in Iowa which makes sense. The last two Republicans to win Iowa were religious conservatives Mike Huckabee in 2008 and Rick Santorum in 2012, but their campaigns didn't go much farther after Iowa. Because the race has so many candidates, nobody is moving up much on Trump nationally, the vote is split up among too many candidates. Someone tonight is going to try to break away. I'm keeping an eye on Chris Christie and John Kasich who are polling well in New Hampshire. They are looking to come in strong there. Cruz will be looking at South Carolina voters tonight, the home of the debate. If he can win Iowa and come back at Trump in South Carolina just a few weeks later, he will be viewed as a more serious candidate nationwide.

The Establishment Strikes Back

Establishment candidates such as Bush, Kasich, Christie and Rubio have not made it to the top tier in national polls and voting is starting soon. Will they gang up on Trump and Cruz to try to gain points, or will they go at each other to try to knock the others out.

A new Trump

Donald Trump's base of support seems solid behind him, his led the polls for months nationally. So how does he add to that to increase his numbers? Tonight's debate only has 7 candidates. With fewer on the stage, we're likely to get into more substance and Fox Business plans to focus on the economy. Will we see a different Trump tonight that focuses more on the issues?

War with Canada

Cruz has been running for president for months, but in the last week the fact he was born in Canada has become an issue. We all remember Trump's attacks on President Obama over his birth certificate, so this is an issue that could turn some die-hard conservatives against Cruz if it gains any traction. Will it come up tonight? We'll see. Look for how Cruz fights back on this issue, it could be the first time we see Trump and Cruz go at it in a debate.

Does Ben Carson try to come back?

For months, Ben Carson was second in most polls to Trump. In recent weeks he has taken a bigger free-fall than any other candidate. He has lost a lot of key campaign workers - his finance chairman Dean Parker just quit today - and his poll numbers are way down. In a recent CNN interview, Carson says he's not going to be as "polite" in this debate. If Carson gains any ground among his conservative, evangelical base after the debate, those votes are likely to come from Cruz.

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