Donald Trump and Ted Cruz take the stage with mainstream Republican candidates desperate to knock them off their perch in Saturday night’s Republican presidential debate, where fireworks are expected ahead of South Carolina’s primary.
With the first two nomination contests in Iowa and New Hampshire under their collective belt, the candidates vying to be their party’s standardbearer are blanketing the so-called Palmetto State known for its bare-knuckle politics.
The state holds its Republican primary on February 20, the same day Democrats vote in Nevada for either Hillary Clinton or Bernie Sanders.
Trump, the brash billionaire whose insurgent campaign has turned the presidential race on its head, has now made legal threats against his nearest rival Cruz, and all eyes will be on the senator from Texas to see if he goes after the real estate tycoon face to face.
Jeb Bush and Marco Rubio have stepped up their aggressive campaigning and Trump criticism.
John Kasich, who placed an impressive second in New Hampshire, sought to keep his head above water in the more conservative, more evangelical South Carolina.
The broad Republican field has narrowed now to six candidates -- Trump, Cruz, Senator Rubio, former Florida governor Bush, Ohio Governor Kasich and retired neurosurgeon Ben Carson.
All will compete in the debate in Greenville beginning at 9:00 pm (0200 GMT Sunday).
The New Hampshire primary, swept by Trump who won 35% of the vote, weeded out two candidates, New Jersey Governor Chris Christie and former Hewlett-Packard chief Carly Fiorina.
Trump, eager to protect his front-runner status, launched an attack Friday on Cruz, telling his six million Twitter followers that if Cruz “doesn’t clean up his act, stop cheating, & doing negative ads, I have standing to sue him for not being a natural born citizen.”
Cruz was born in Canada, and while he insists he is constitutionally eligible to run for president, Trump has repeatedly expressed doubts about that, and warned that Democrats would seek to bar him from the ballot should Cruz win the nomination.
Rubio also will be closely watched to see whether he can turn the tables after a poor showing in the previous weekend’s debate, which was widely blamed for his fifth-place showing in New Hampshire just days later.
Christie had savaged Rubio for robotically repeating talking points during that debate, seeking to expose the first-term US senator as ill-prepared to be commander in chief.
Rubio has adapted on the fly, holding lengthy press conferences in South Carolina and speaking extemporaneously to supporters as he punched back against the narrative that he is too green.
“We feel very good about our message, our campaign,” Rubio told Fox News.
Meanwhile, campaigns and their supporters have saturated South Carolina’s airwaves with negative advertising, including a harsh takedown of Trump by a pro-Bush group that criticized Trump for denigrating women, associating with the Clintons and for insulting decorated war heroes.
The debate is certain to address the sudden death Saturday of conservative US Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia, 79, an issue likely to dominate the 2016 campaign.
A bitter fight is expected this year over President Barack Obama’s future nominee to the court to replace Scalia, with Republicans likely to block efforts by the White House to install a new justice before the November presidential election.