Tonight is the 5th Republican Party debate thus far in the election cycle. It will air on CNN at 8:30 pm ET. The so-called "undercard" debate for candidates that don't meet a certain threshold in the polls will begin at 6 pm ET.
Here's your rundown of the main narratives heading into the showdown.
The field for the main debate stage will be the same as last time, with the exception of New Jersey Christ Christie returning to prime time after a strong showing in the "appetizer" to the last debate. Donald Trump will stand at the center of the group of 9, flanked on the left by Ted Cruz, Rand Paul, Christie, and Jeb Bush while Marco Rubio, Ben Carson, Carly Fiorina, and John Kasich will be to Trump's right.
The undercard features Lindsey Graham, Rick Santorum, Mike Huckabee, and George Pataki.
Tearing Down Trump
Of course, the main storyline of the debate will be Donald Trump. His frankness in recent weeks about Muslim Americans has been met with condemnation from the media (and his opponents in the Republican Party), but the broader narrative centers around the direct challenge he poses to the GOP establishment. It's not just establishment Republicans that don't want to be associated with Trump's positions; it's politicians in general. This is a key part of Trump's appeal to begin with: he is certainly not a politician, and he doesn't pretend to speak like one.
With continued success in the polls and no signs of backing down from any of his controversial statements (he's actually doubled down on them), Trump is forcing the GOP to seriously consider his chances to win their party's nomination. This is something none of the party elite can stomach, so don't be surprised by a cooperative effort by candidates like Bush, Rubio, Christie, and especially Kasich to try and bring Trump down.
Trump vs. Cruz?
Much has been made recently about a potential war-of-words brewing between Trump and Ted Cruz. Thus far, Cruz has stayed away from criticizing Trump and has even praised his presence in the GOP field. Trump had likewise steered away from criticizing Cruz—until recently, when he characterized Cruz's gadfly reputation in the Senate as maniacal and lacking in accomplishments.
It has made sense for the two candidates to stay out of each other's way, as there is considerable overlap between the voters they are appealing most strongly to. In many cases, likely Trump voters have rated Cruz as their second choice.
Although it would be full of fiery entertainment, we shouldn't expect a confrontation between Cruz and Trump just yet. They are both still solidifying their anti-establishment platforms; Cruz doesn't want to seem like he is pivoting toward the establishment, while Trump will likely avoid attacking Cruz to the same extent that he has done so with Ben Carson.
Looking to Gain Ground
Speaking of Carson, the retired neurosurgeon is hoping to recover from a recent slump in the polls. Deeper digging into Caron's personal life has not shone a positive light on his lack of preparedness for public office, though there is still plenty of time for him to reorient the narrative about his qualifications (or apparent lack thereof) once again. Like Trump, he has openly mulled running as an independent candidate.
Christie, Paul, and Fiorina will likewise try to kick-start their campaigns with a memorable debate performance. Fiorina has yet to regain the momentum she generated earlier this summer, and has somewhat fallen into the background. Rand Paul will look to energize his base by distinguishing himself from the other Republicans as a defender of liberty. Although he hasn't had any singular "big moment" worth note, Paul has been consistent and brings another unorthodox perspective to the Republican field.
Not Too Late for Jeb?
There is the ever-present question about Jeb Bush, as well: Does he have a chance?
Bush, with his family name and experience as governor of Florida preceding him, had seemed like the front-runner in the crowded (and otherwise unknown) GOP field when the race began. Since then, he has remained mired in the middle of the pack, polling around 5%.
Jeb has thus far in the campaign alternated between not standing out and tripping over himself when he tries to. Nonetheless, the longer he can survive without either a) running out of money or b) committing some misstep that tanks his campaign, the more likely it is that Bush again becomes a contender. That means that we shouldn't expect anything surprising from Jeb until the field is whittled down a bit. If he does surprise us, it's probably not a good sign.
Finally, there are the moderators. In half (2) of the GOP debates this year, the moderators have unduly inserted themselves (and their personalities) into the discussion. Critics understandably responded by lambasting CNBC and CNN after each debate. In the following debate on Fox Business Network, the moderators learned from the mistakes of their counterparts at the other networks, staying out of the fray and allowing the candidates to answer relevant questions.
We will see if this same objective integrity will be maintained by CNN's crew of Wolf Blitzer, Hugh Hewitt, and Dana Bash.
The next GOP debate will take place on Thursday, January 14th (the first true primary debate of 2016) in South Carolina. It will be televised on Fox Business Network. In the meantime, the next Democratic debate will be held this Saturday (December 19th) in New Hampshire, and will air on ABC.