SIMI VALLEY, Calif. — Republican candidates enter Wednesday's second primary debate with at least one similar goal: Pull off a game-changing performance that will challenge Donald Trump's front-runner status in the 2016 presidential race.
"I hear they're all going after me," Trump told his audience of 18,000-plus at a campaign rally in Dallas on Monday. "Whatever. Whatever!"
The latest USA TODAY GOP Power Rankings, released Tuesday, show Trump continues to sit atop the crowded field, while Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker, once a top-tier candidate, is fading.
Eleven candidates will stand on the main stage Wednesday night at the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library in Simi Valley, Calif., while four face off in an earlier undercard debate.
Here are nine things to watch for:
1. ANY CRACKS IN THE TRUMP CONCRETE
Will any candidate find the small crack that erodes upward momentum for Trump?
GOP strategist Katie Packer Gage rattled off possible lines of attack: Trump is a "bad businessman" because of his bankruptcies or Trump isn't "a real conservative."
Republican strategist Kevin Madden said audiences walk away from these debates remembering candidates' moments of strength or moments of weakness.
"What if Trump emerges from a gang tackle still holding the ball?" said Madden, who like Gage was an adviser to former presidential candidate Mitt Romney and is unaffiliated in the 2016 race.
Trump "could come out of it with more supporters than when he went in if the other candidates gang up and still can't take him down even when he's outnumbered," he said.
2. THE 11TH PODIUM
The addition of Carly Fiorina, the only woman in the GOP race, to the main stage could slow down any candidate on the Testosterone Express, conservative analysts said.
"Having 'The Donald' confront the female recipient of his recent insults on national television could be the most intriguing subplot of the second debate," said Ford O'Connell, a Virginia-based GOP strategist who worked on the 2008 McCain/Palin presidential campaign.
"With Trump, nothing is out of bounds, but even Trump has to be slightly concerned about the optics of this potential spectacle," O'Connell said.
Some conservative women, including the top two elected female GOP officials in first-in-the-nation Iowa, have chastised Trump for remarks they consider inappropriate or sexist – including the way he mocked Fiorina's looks in a recent interview with Rolling Stone magazine.
3. THE EXCLAMATION POINT
Previews of the first debate anticipated a Trump vs. Bush rivalry. This time, there's more chatter about the possibility of Trump-Fiorina fireworks ‚ or about whether Carson, No. 2 in the polls, will sidestep conflict.
This isn't a do-or-die debate for former Florida governor Jeb Bush, but he could definitely benefit from controlling a news cycle, said Jeff Stein, an Iowa nonpartisan political analyst who is on his 10th cycle following the Iowa caucuses.
"Jeb! needs to put an exclamation point behind his performance," Stein said, referring to Bush's campaign slogan. "He's an excellent and competent executive, but people are waiting to see that he can rally their hearts and minds
There will be plenty more debates – and they're just one facet of a campaign, Mike Murphy, the head of the pro-Bush super PAC Right to Rise USA, told early-state reporters on a conference call Monday.
The long-term ticket: looking the most presidential, strategists agreed.
Republican pollster Kellyanne Conway, who works for super PACs backing Texas Sen. Ted Cruz, said: "Can you close your eyes and picture me as commander-in-chief — this is the core question all must answer in this foreign-policy focused debate."
4. RONALD REAGAN REACHES
Will the number of times candidates invoke the name of GOP idol Ronald Reagan reach double digits?
One candidate who has been known to lean hard on Reagan references is Walker.
Walker's prospects for the future are now among the fuzziest — no one in the race has dropped further and faster as a result of the Trump boomlet than Walker, polling shows. He's now at 3.8% in the rolling average of national polling compiled by RealClearPolitics.com. Would a stellar performance be enough to arrest his slide?
Supporters of Florida Sen. Marco Rubio have said they hope he's the one who seizes the Reagan mantle. By most accounts, Rubio gave best performance in the top-tier debate last time, Gage noted, but he's at only 5.8% in the national average.
Bush, in third place nationally at 7.8%, opened a Miami field office sporting a Reagan-Bush T-shirt from 1984, a reminder that the Bush name is historically tied to Reagan and the fall of the Soviet Union.
Las Vegas-based GOP pollster Frank Luntz said the location of this debate makes it ideal for putting pressure on — or embarrassing — Republicans who have made comments on immigration that are "diametrically opposed to Reagan." A TV ad by the National Immigration Forum Action Fund will air during the debate, and it calls out Trump, Walker and Cruz.
"How they handle that is very important," Luntz said. "Reagan was very much about America being a place where people can come and start a new life."
5. THE HUGH HEWITT TRIP WIRE
Will anyone get tripped up in the foreign policy exam that will be central to this debate? Can Ben Carson, who has said he is a "novice" in foreign policy, meet the expectations that come with being a top polling candidate?
Will Trump prove he knows a Sunni from a Shiite? Does Fiorina's time on the CIA's external advisory board pay off in the knowledge department? Or not?
One of the moderators will be conservative radio host Hugh Hewitt, and he has a reputation for tough, substantive policy questions, Luntz said.
"To Republicans, national security is as important as economic security," Luntz said. Trump has already laid the groundwork for a defense by complaining that Hewitt asks "gotcha questions."
6. THE PRIME-TIME MUSICAL CHAIRS
Will this be the last prime time debate for anyone — perhaps Kentucky Sen. Rand Paul, New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie or maybe Walker?
"This debate will be important for fundraising reasons. A candidate needs to perform strongly enough to justify asking supporters to provide the money necessary to make it to the caucuses," Stein said.
Although Ohio Gov. John Kasich is climbing in one critical early state — New Hampshire — he's buried in the shadows in national polling. Conservative strategists said they wonder whether Kasich will perform as well in front of a California audience as he did in front of the crowd in his home state of Ohio.
Luntz predicted none of the 11 on the main stage will fall off the debate cliff, but all of the undercard debaters are in jeopardy.
If they aren't in the top 10 for the Colorado debate on Oct. 28, Luntz said, "the networks have a legitimate reason not to do that second debate at all."
7. WILL CHRIS CHRISTIE LASH OUT?
New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie isn't having an impact in polling among Republican presidential hopefuls but insists he's "absolutely enjoying myself'' on the campaign trail, which included an Iowa stop over the weekend.
"When you're flipping pork chops with (Iowa Gov.) Terry Branstad, which I was doing (Saturday), over at a hot grill in Iowa at the Iowa State Fair, how can you have more fun than that?'' Christie said during an appearance on MSNBC's Morning Joe on Monday.
A Reuters/Ipsos poll released Friday showed real estate mogul Donald Trump widening his lead to double the support of his closest rival, former Florida governor Jeb Bush, with Christie in a three-way tie for eighth place.
Christie after his MSNBC spot was scheduled to head to New Hampshire for a town hall Monday night at Sayde's Neighborhood Bar & Grill in Salem. Christie said he's held 17 town halls in New Hampshire.
Politico cited rival Republican campaigns and outside observers in reporting that Christie's "window to re-enter the top tier of presidential candidates is closing fast'' and likened Christie's bid for media attention at a town hall in New Hampshire last week as "gasping for air.''
Christie portrayed a different picture of his campaign events to MSNBC host Joe Scarborough.
"They're really well-attended. They're really well-received,'' he said.
Christie said he's pushing forward, adding, "You just keep working. The bottom line is, the way these primaries always get won, it's by the folks who work the hardest and develop an organization and then get the vote out,'' he said.
8. WILL TRUMP LASH OUT AT THE MODERATORS?
Trump is unique, however. A businessman and a reality television star who has never held office, Trump has led the field for more than two months. He has expanded his lead in many polls, despite flaps that would have sunk other candidates, including harsh comments about Fox News anchor Megyn Kelly, John McCain and Fiorina.
Look for many candidates to challenge Trump during Wednesday's debate.
The moderators Wednesday night includes CNN Chief Washington Correspondent Jake Tapper, Chief Political Correspondent Dana Bash and conservative radio host Hugh Hewitt.
9. WILL THE CANDIDATES PLAY BY THE RULES?
Watch for who plays by the rules and who doesn't. In the first debate, the moderator was ignored and even criticized. There were interruptions and arguments. These things will not be tolerated, most likely, this time around.
(KUSA-TV © 2015 KUSA with USA Today)