For the past few months, we at Fortune have published a list of things to look for in the run up to just about every presidential primary debate. We surmised on things like who would be strong on certain questions, what the major topics would be, and who would attack who.
For Thursday evening’s Republican debate in Houston, though, we offer no such list. That’s because there is only one thing to look for: how often and how viciously will Sen. Marco Rubio and Sen. Ted Cruz go after Donald Trump. If one or both of them manages to lay into Trump and land some body blows, there’s a chance they could stop the businessman’s momentum, have a good showing in next week’s Super Tuesday primaries, and potentially capture the nomination.
But if the two senators instead opt to squabble over who did what in the Senate, who doesn’t speak Spanish, or who will be tougher on illegal immigration, neither of them is likely to overcome the rising tide of Trump. Trump will win the nomination, and will go into a national election against either an eccentric democratic socialist (Bernie Sanders) or a candidate with excessive political baggage (Hillary Clinton).
Super Tuesday is March 1. Trump currently has a lead in Florida, despite it being Rubio’s home state. Trump also has a lead in Georgia. The latest polls have him leading in Ohio. He is trailing Cruz in Texas, but Cruz will need more than just his home state to make this work.
There have been calls for a Rubio-Cruz unity ticket to stop the Trump machine. So far, it hasn’t materialized. If either of them wants a chance to win the nomination, though, the battle for second place has to stop on Thursday evening, and they both need to focus all of their energy on Trump.