Next Tuesday kicks off the winner take all calendar when the bulk of the remaining primary races have all the delegates up for grabs for whoever wins. Tonight will feature the final debate between the four GOP candidates still in the race and it could be an important one.
So here's how I think things will shake out on the stage tonight. I have put what I believe to be the level of importance in parenthesis after the candidate name:
Marco Rubio (Critical) - Rubio's campaign is on life support. While he has declared he will go on even if he loses Florida, it is hard to see how. While nobody but pundits and Trump fans think Trump is up by 20 in Florida, he still has a lead. The good news for Rubio is Trump has under-performed in states that have closed contests. The following is a list with the RCP average poll lead and then the final result for Trump (negative indicates a Trump loss):
Iowa + 4.7 / - 3.3
Alaska + 4 / - 2.9
Oklahoma + 11 / - 6
Kansas + 6 / - 25
Kentucky + 13 / + 4
Louisiana + 16 / + 3.5
Idaho + 11 / - 17
Those are big shifts. Which means Rubio does have a shot to win there if the polls that have gone off 2012/2014 voter rolls are to be believed. Rubio has four days. He needs a strong debate tonight that is aimed largely at the voters of Florida. If he loses Tuesday, he's done.
Donald Trump (Important) - The debate is important for Trump because he can't have an awful debate like had last time. People are probably thinking, "But he cleaned up this week!" He did. But guess what? The deep south states which were supposed to be Cruz's area, went for Trump and they're done. I'd look for Trump to be low key at this point. He'll get his digs in where he can, but he won't be on the attack.
Ted Cruz (Very Important) - He wants Rubio and Kasich to drop out and he wants them to drop out badly. Cruz had one of his strongest debates last go round and I expect to see the same. I don't expect Cruz is going to win Illinois or North Carolina but he has a good shot of winning Missouri which is a winner take all state. He's not going to win Florida or Ohio. So if Trump falls in both of those states and Cruz picks up 52 delegates from MO and some from IL and NC, it puts him within striking distance of Trump. Look for him not to go after Rubio, but to continue to draw a clear line between him and Trump.
Kasich - (Not Important) - He thinks it will be. But even if Kasich wins Ohio he has as much chance of getting to 1,237 delegates as Trump does of winning a congeniality contest. For those of us who do not want Trump as the nominee, we'd welcome Kasich winning Ohio and keeping Trump from getting 66 delegates. If he does, great. Then he can get out of the race.
I just don't expect a lot of fireworks tonight except for Cruz continuing to draw a line between him and Trump. Otherwise, most of it won't be much of a debate but rather the candidates attempt to make a case for themselves prior to Tuesday.