Real-estate mogul Donald Trump has a target on his back at the big CNN presidential debate Wednesday night.
At least two of his rivals appear eager to take Republican the front-runner down a notch: former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush (R) and Sen. Rand Paul (R-Kentucky).
With tens of millions of potential viewers, the debates are crucial opportunities to stand out from the crowded pack of 16 Republican candidates.
And Paul, in particular, seems especially hungry to rip into Trump to boost his sputtering campaign.
“I think he deserves both barrels,” Paul told the The Daily Caller. “I want to make sure everyone in the whole country knows he’s a fake conservative.”
Paul further said in another Tuesday interview that debates are a form of “combat.”
“Electioneering — running for office — is combat. It’s intellectual combat and you have to differentiate yourself from others,” he told Fox News host Megyn Kelly while previewing a laundry list of potential Trump attacks.
“Donald Trump was for President Obama’s stimulus plan, [a] government-stimulus plan. No conservative in America was for it. He was for President Obama’s Obamacare. No conservative in America was for that, either,” he said.
Paul, a libertarian-oriented Republican, said Trump’s biggest weakness is his record on eminent domain, or the government seizure of private property for a public purpose. Trump, as a hard-charging developer, sought to use eminent domain to expand his empire.
“When you look at private-property rights — sort of the fundamental building blocks of our country — he’s for taking property from an individual small-property owner and giving it to big corporations like his. And there are no conservatives in America who are for that. So really I do think he’s a fake conservative,” Paul told Kelly.
Paul also eagerly attacked Trump during the first debate.
After the very first question, in which the candidates were asked to pledge to support the eventual GOP nominee, Paul tore into Trump for refusing to do so. The senator later attacked Trump for his past support for a single-payer healthcare program. But Paul plans to go after Trump even harder on Wednesday night.
“I think I took it a little bit easy on him the first debate, so I think I’ll probably try to be a little more aggressive with him,” he told Politico’s Mike Allen for his Wednesday morning newsletter.
“Numbers don’t change from being passive,” he added of his own sagging poll numbers. “And it may or may not come in my direction, but it won’t be for a lack of trying on my part.”
Bush also apparently wants to draw sharp contrasts with Trump during their verbal bout.
The former governor has repeatedly tangled with Trump on the campaign trail in recent weeks. But during the last debate in August, he declined an opportunity to hammer the developer. Now, facing gloomier-than-expected poll numbers, Bush reportedly plans to leave a dent on Trump’s candidacy on Wednesday.
“The former governor knows the stakes all too well, his people say,” Politico’s Alex Isenstadt and Glenn Thrush reported Wednesday. “And Trump’s challenge has stoked a stubborn competitive streak few outsiders see, according to people close to his campaign.”
It appears, however, that Bush isn’t as eager as Paul is to get down into the “mud” with Trump, as Bush advisers described attacking Trump to Politico.
“The key, people close to Bush say, is coming up with a tough approach without making the candidate want to crawl out of his own, deeply civil skin,” Isenstadt and Thrush continued. “To that end, he has been huddling with his team, whenever time permits, to work out a plan of attack for the primetime showdown with Trump.”
Other candidates may also seek to land a blow on Trump during the high-profile television event.
One of the most intriguing story lines heading into the debate is how former Hewlett-Packard CEO Carly Fiorina will address the real-estate magnate. Trump generated fierce backlash by mocking Fiorina’s face in a recent Rolling Stone profile, and some observers wonder how Trump will address the field’s only female candidate.
Fiorina, with a slight surge in her poll numbers, is also the only candidate who rose from August’s “undercard” debate among second-tier candidates to the main stage Wednesday night.
Asked by CNBC’s John Harwood if she was “looking forward to giving Donald Trump a massive headache,” Fiorina kept her cards close to her vest.
“Well, I think Mr. Trump’s going to be hearing quite a lot from me,” she replied.
Attacking Trump is not without its risks. He frequently brags about being an aggressive “counter puncher,” a reputation he has lived up to by hitting back hard whenever he is challenged.
At the first debate, for example, Trump dismissed Paul by condescendingly telling him, “You’re having a hard time tonight.”
Trump recently told The New York Times that he expects to respond to attacks from Fiorina by bashing what he called a terrible record at Hewlett-Packard.
“I’m not going to call her honey,” he said. “Look, she’s only got 3 per cent in the polls, so in order to get recognition, I think she’ll start hitting me. So I think she’s fair game.”
He further insisted he would not be chauvinistic towards her.
“I wouldn’t do that,” he told The Times. “Though, if I did — well, people would just hit me with political correctness, which, again people are so tired of.”
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