Election 2016

Three Things Texans Can Watch For During Tonight’s Republican Debate At The University Of Houston

Here’s what Houston’s political pundits will be looking for tonight during the live debate at the Moores Opera House at the University of Houston.

The Republican presidential primary debate airs at 7:30 p.m. on CNN. Houston will proudly play the host city, but the candidates will be playing to a national audience. Eleven states hold Republican primaries next week during "Super Tuesday," and this is the last debate before then.

Here's what Houston's political pundits will be looking for tonight during the live debate at the Moores Opera House at the University of Houston.

1. Cruz will be talking to the non-Texans

A poll by Houston Public Media and the Hobby Center for Public Policy shows Senator Ted Cruz does have a 13-point lead over Donald Trump in his home state of Texas. But the poll also showed that 19 percent of Republican primary voters in Texas are still undecided.

That means Cruz must solidify his political base while also making a good impression outside of Texas. Richard Murray, a political scientist at the University of Houston, said Cruz's strategy is to appeal to conservative, religious voters in other southern states that are taking part in Super Tuesday — states like Alabama, Arkansas and Georgia.

"We have a favorite son who must do well in Texas," Murray said. "He also needs to do well in the other six ‘SEC states.' They've got a lot of evangelical voters."

"There are 600 plus delegates at stake, 450 of them outside of Texas," he added.

2. A rough fight to break Trump's momentum

Trump has won three straight victories, and yet the delegate-rich state of Texas will probably go to Cruz on Super Tuesday. Still, Cruz needs to win other states on March 1 if he is going to catch up in the delegate count, as does Florida Senator Marco Rubio.

That means Cruz and Rubio will come out fighting, says Jon Taylor, a political scientist at the University of St. Thomas.

Both Cruz and Rubio must perform extremely well in the Houston debate and distinguish themselves — or their positions — in a way that will help non-Trump voters decide conclusively for one of them, he explained.

"They recognize, or they better recognize, that this is — in some respects — a line in the sand," Taylor said.

"You better be aggressive, you better be strong, you better be on your game, and you better get going after Trump like (there's) no tomorrow. "You better make Trump, basically, make unforced errors."

3. Cruz will show his nice side

Cruz was bruised by a recent incident, in which his campaign spread a misleading video about Marco Rubio's relationship with the Bible. He has been attacked for being untruthful, and someone who uses scorched-earth campaign tactics. Rubio or Trump may continue those attacks tonight, said Rice University political scientist Bob Stein.

Cruz could counter by trying to come off as gentler and more trustworthy, Stein said, while still debating strongly. It means striking a delicate balance.

"He is going to have to establish himself as someone who is a little softer, a little bit more honest. I expect him to be fairly contrite. He fired his chief spokesman," Stein said.

If Cruz outright apologizes for the incident, it may be a skillful way of deflecting further attacks, Stein continued.

"I think he's going to reach out and say: ‘Look, I've sinned, I've erred, but I am a good man.'"

Stein explained that when a politician asks for redemption and forgiveness, it's hard for an opponent to simply turn around and attack him again, so he'll be watching to see how Donald Trump and Marco Rubio react to that tactic, if it comes up.


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