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Republican debate 2016: start time, schedule, and what to expect

JIM WATSON/AFP/Getty

The next Republican presidential debate is Thursday in Houston, Texas. It will air on CNN, and according to the network, the event will "kick off" at 8:30 pm Eastern. An online live stream will be freely available to all on CNN.com.

All five of the remaining GOP candidates — Donald Trump, Marco Rubio, Ted Cruz, John Kasich, and Ben Carson — will be in attendance. And the stakes are incredibly high, because this will be the party's final debate before the Super Tuesday contests on March 1, in which about a quarter of the party's delegates will be awarded to the candidates.

What to expect at the CNN Republican debate

The Republican Party is running out of time to stop Donald Trump, who has won three of the first four states to vote. Though the GOP primaries technically go on until June, the first half of March is an incredibly important phase of the contest in which more than half of the delegates will be allotted. That means that by March 15 — less than three weeks from now — 58 percent of delegates will have been given out. And as I wrote on Wednesday, if Trump builds up a big lead by then, it could be nearly impossible to catch up to him.

Of the five remaining candidates, it appears that only Trump and Rubio have viable paths forward, unless something big changes fast. Cruz has failed to translate his Iowa caucus win into strong performances elsewhere, and if Trump beats him across the several Southern states voting on March 1 like he did in South Carolina, it's hard to see how the Texas senator can win. Kasich, meanwhile, won second place in New Hampshire but was stuck in single digits in the other three states to vote — apparently showing that he has little appeal outside deep blue states.

So it's looking more and more like Trump versus Rubio, with the former having won three states so far and the latter having won zero. And lately, anxious anti-Trump Republicans have been hoping Rubio will go after Trump more directly. Yet, according to a report by Politico's Alex Isenstadt, Rubio is "unlikely" to "aggressively engage" Trump in tonight's debate. Instead, he is going to focus on attacking Ted Cruz, whom he hopes to force out of the race in early March, to clear the way for the Rubio/Trump face-off.

Now, I suppose this could be a savvy trick by Rubio's team, a misleading leak to lull Trump into a false sense of security. But it fits with Rubio's strategy lately — when asked why he wouldn't take on Trump directly, he didn't take the opportunity, and instead said, "I'm not in this race to attack any Republican." (Ross Douthat has deemed this Rubio's "wait, wait, wait strategy.")

The risk here, of course, is that Trump just wins … and keeps on winning. He's currently leading polls in nearly all of the 11 states voting on Super Tuesday. And, two new polls released Thursday showed him beating Rubio handily in the senator's home state of Florida, too. Where does it stop?

How to watch:

When: 8:30 pm Eastern

Where: University of Houston Moores School of Music Opera House, Houston, Texas

TV: CNN

Online: CNN.com, free live stream available

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