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7 things to watch for in tonight’s Republican presidential debate

Scott Olson/Getty Images

Update: Coverage of the second Republican debate on CNN.

It's debate night in America!

The undercard starts at 5 pm — it's being called the Happy Hour debate — and the main event's at 9 on Fox. I'll be in Cleveland if I can finish this piece and drive there in time. Wish me luck.

Here are the seven things I'll be looking for:

  1. Whether Trump turns his attack machine on Hillary Clinton — allowing him to maintain his edgy brand without alienating other Republican candidates and their supporters.
  2. Whether anyone sucks up to Jeb Bush and Scott Walker by diving on the Trump grenade and starting a fight with him on stage.
  3. Can John Kasich defend his acceptance of Obamacare Medicaid money in a way that makes them seem compassionate rather than soft on entitlements.
  4. Who will have the best arguments on Social Security and Medicare: those who want to make big changes, or those (Mike Huckabee) who have taken a hands-off-my-benefits approach?
  5. Does any sort of consensus position on immigration arise out of the political combat over border security, deportation, and possible legalization of unauthorized immigrants? How far from a pure "border security" chant can a candidate safely get?
  6. How do they handle any questions about same-sex marriage and LGBTQ rights?
  7. There will be a range of worldviews on stage, from the traditional hard-liners like Marco Rubio to the isolationist-tilting Rand Paul. Is the modern Republican Party wary of war or ready for it? Perhaps the debate will give us some insight into that.

Pretty much every news outlet has at least one debate preview story today. If you're looking for more things to watch, there's an array of ways of looking at it.

Here are 9 more things to know today.

1) Trump and circumstance: It wasn't supposed to be like this for the GOP

Voxxer-in-Chief Ezra Klein takes a look at how Donald Trump slipped past the field and turned the conventional wisdom about the 2016 Republican class on its head.

2016 was supposed to be a year when Republicans were spoiled for choice. 2016 was supposed to be a year when Republicans couldn't decide which uber-qualified, intensely charismatic, deeply conservative candidate to choose from.

Instead, a growing plurality of the base has fallen in love with Donald Trump. Imagine how frustrating that is for this field of candidates, most of whom have spent the last few years proving and re-proving their conservative credentials.

2) To wit, Ezra, there's this: Bush thinks Trump is an "a-hole."

How did we get here, with Donald Trump well ahead of a pack of 16 Republican candidates? That's what Politico's Glenn Thrush and Alex Isenstadt explain in a detailed account of the GOP race to date. They reveal the level of Jeb Bush's frustration over Trump's ascension. It's personal.

The half-dozen conservative senators and governors who had planned to run before Bush brought out his shock-and-awe fundraising campaign, had to laugh: They viewed Bush himself as an intruder, a political semi-retiree who sat on the sidelines for eight years while they fought Barack Obama. Now it was Bush’s turn to rage at an outsider.

"Seriously, what’s this guy’s problem?" he asked one party donor he ran into recently according to accounts provided by several sources close to Bush — and he went on to describe the publicity seeking real estate developer now surging in public polls far ahead of Bush and all the 15 others in the Republican field as "a buffoon," "clown" and "asshole."

3) The worst story for Hillary Clinton today: the Libya debacle

This story doesn't even mention Hillary Clinton by name, but it explains one of her biggest vulnerabilities in the 2016 campaign. Missy Ryan of the Washington Post reports on the US government's failure to help stand up a new Libyan military after ousting Moammar Gadhafi in 2011 and watching four Americans die in Benghazi in 2012. Regardless of the politics, it's really worth the full read to understand what a mess Libya has become and why the US has been unable to change the circumstances on the ground there.

After widespread looting of Gaddafi’s arsenals, the country was awash in heavy weapons. Militias, reluctant to give up power, had begun to turn their guns on one another. A separatist movement was gaining steam in the country’s east. And in 2012, Islamist militants had killed Ambassador J. Christopher Stevens and three other Americans in Benghazi.

"We would like an alliance against terrorism," [then-Prime Minister Ali] Zeidan told President Obama and other world leaders as he made his case. "That [was] our target," he said in an interview.

But the Obama administration’s plan to help the country rebuild its military, joined by other NATO governments, instead came to symbolize the shortcomings of the West’s approach to post-revolution Libya. Undermined by insecurity and political divisions there, the flagship assistance program revealed not only the hollowness of Libyan institutions but also how different parts of the U.S. government worked at cross-purposes, dooming a project that Obama ­selected as a personal priority.

4) Clinton campaign struggles to address flagging poll numbers

Every time Clinton's slide in public approval is mentioned to one of her campaign staffers, the response is the same: She's winning in national head-to-head match-ups with potential Republican rivals. Given that most of them remain relative unknowns, there are 17 of them for Republicans to choose from, and they're still in the midst of a brutal primary — while Clinton's main opponent refuses to directly attack her — it shouldn't be terribly surprising that she's still up in national head-to-head tests. Gabe Debenedetti and Annie Karni of Politico write that there is concern within Clinton circles:

While there aren’t any outward signs of panic, the campaign has made a $2 million ad buy featuring biography-heavy commercials that will air in New Hampshire and Iowa beginning this week. The spots are expected to help boost her ratings — it might be the last opportunity to define Clinton on her own terms before her GOP opponents overrun the early state airwaves with attacks that are likely to drag down her further.

Clinton aides and close political allies privately acknowledge concern about her inability to control the narratives that drive national coverage — such as the ongoing saga over her private email server — but they insist that she’s in good shape as long as she continues to lead her potential GOP rivals in nationwide polls.

5) Those godful socialists at Liberty University will hear from the #Bern

Bernie Sanders announced Wednesday that he'll be appearing at Liberty University, the Lynchburg, Virginia, religious college founded by televangelist Jerry Falwell. Here's what the socialist-inspired Vermont senator said about his decision to meet with the religious conservative kids:

Liberty University was kind enough to invite me to address a convocation and I decided to accept. It goes without saying that my views on many issues — women’s rights, gay rights, education — are very different from the opinions of some in the Liberty University community. I think it is important, however, to see if we can reach consensus regarding the grotesque level of income and wealth inequality in our country, about the collapse of the middle class, about the high level of childhood poverty, about climate change and other issues.

It is very easy for a candidate to speak to people who hold the same views. It’s harder but important to reach out to others who look at the world differently. I look forward to meeting with the students and faculty of Liberty University.

6) Rand Paul political aide/relative indicted in alleged endorsement scheme

Jesse Benton, a well-known political operative who worked for Ron Paul, Mitch McConnell, and Rand Paul, was indicted Wednesday on charges that he defrauded the US government and lied about it as part of a conspiracy to buy the support of an Iowa legislator for Ron Paul's 2012 presidential campaign.

Benton, who is married to Ron Paul's granddaughter (Rand Paul's niece), has been an engine behind Rand Paul's Super PAC, as has John Tate, who was also indicted on Wednesday. The charges against them stem from the work they did on behalf of Ron Paul's presidential campaign, not Rand Paul's bid. The most alarming thing is that they allegedly paid $73,000 — $73,000! — to get someone to abandon Michele Bachmann and endorse Ron Paul. The Louisville Courier-Journal has the details:

According to the indictment, Benton approached Iowa state Sen. Kent Sorenson in October of 2011 and asked him to switch allegiances in the election. According to news reports, Sorenson first endorsed former U.S. Rep. Michele Bachmann but dropped that endorsement and backed Ron Paul on Dec. 28, 2011.

Over the next six months, the indictment claims, Benton, [Dimitrios] Kesari and Tate laundered $73,000 to Sorenson through a political consulting company Sorenson owned and through a film production company. The work-around was necessary because under Iowa Senate rules, Sorenson couldn’t be paid for working on a presidential race.

Benton, according to the indictment, repeatedly denied that the campaign paid Sorenson — either directly or through intermediaries — when interviewed by the FBI on July 21 and 22 of last year.

7) Texas voter ID law discriminates against minorities, appeals panel rules

The fight over Texas's voter ID law is probably not over, but opponents of the strict rules won a victory Wednesday when a panel of federal appellate court judges ruled that it discriminates against black and Hispanic voters. Erik Eckholm of the New York Times writes about where the case may be headed:

Although the appeals court upheld the finding of discriminatory effect, the three-judge panel said the lower court must re-examine its conclusion that Texas acted with discriminatory purpose.

Texas could appeal to the full Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals in New Orleans or the United States Supreme Court. In a statement issued Wednesday afternoon, Gov. Greg Abbott did not say whether the state would appeal.

But the governor did say, "Texas will continue to fight for its voter ID requirement to ensure the integrity of elections in the Lone Star State."

8) Chuck the book at 'em? Not anymore for Iowa senator

Senate Judiciary Committee Chair Chuck Grassley has been a tough-on-crime legislator throughout a career in Washington that began in January 1975. But now, with conservatives increasingly embracing aspects of criminal justice reform, he's the key player in moving that legislation through the Senate, as Isaac Stanley-Becker reports for the Wall Street Journal:

The most likely outcome of the talks, according to aides and lawmakers involved in the negotiations, is legislation that would combine programs to reduce recidivism and create more opportunities for early release with provisions giving judges some discretion to sentence below the mandatory minimum for certain drug defendants.

"I think it’s fair to say there are going to be a lot less people that are going to have mandatory minimums apply, but it’s not going to be this across-the-board cut," Mr. Grassley said, warning that drastic reductions in sentences would weaken penalties for serious offenders.

9) Marist poll on $10 bill: Eleanor Roosevelt, for the win

The Treasury Department is in search of the right woman to supplant Alexander Hamilton on the $10 bill, and Marist College has a poll that finds Eleanor Roosevelt is the most popular choice. First, here's Treasury Secretary Jack Lew on the decision to make change on cash:

And here's the Marist poll:

Marist College poll on whom Americans would like to see on the $10 bill.

The Marist Poll

My choice, Sojourner Truth, didn't even make the list.