How to make upward move in GOP debate

In this Feb. 6, 2016 file photo, Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump shakes hands with fellow candidate, former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush, followed by Ohio Gov. John Kasich and, Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla. after a Republican presidential primary debate in Manchester, N.H. (AP Photo/David Goldman, File)

Just two days after the Democratic presidential debate, the top five Republicans will face off tonight, one week before the South Carolina primary. Each has specific challenges and opportunities.

After New Hampshire, Donald Trump goes into South Carolina as the undisputed front-runner. His job will be twofold.

First, he cannot have a viral moment in which he is trapped on policy or put on defense over his business record. So far, he has been adept at blustering past the moderators and his opponents. At some point, however, he will be asked something like: “What is in your ‘awesome’ health-care plan?”

Second, while he loves to bash Jeb Bush, strategically it makes much more sense for Trump to bash Sen. Ted Cruz, who will fight for evangelical voters, upstate and rural voters and anti-immigration enthusiasts. In fact, to the extent Trump crushes Bush, he helps Sen. Marco Rubio get back on his feet.

Trump has been going after Cruz for “sleazy” tactics, but he may need a more substantive argument (e.g. knocking Cruz’s defense record) to make real headway.

Ideally, Cruz would love the fight to rage between Bush and Trump, while he makes his overwrought appeals to the right-wing base on everything from gay marriage (he accuses Rubio and Trump of holding the same view as the president) to his draconian opposition to legal immigration.

The last thing he wants to do is get flattened by Trump or get hit from the right by Rubio or Bush on national security. A bloodbath between Trump and Cruz, however, may be unavoidable. If so, Cruz had better be prepared to deflect the barbs, insults and accusations without losing his cool.

Bush and Rubio are competing in South Carolina for moderate and “somewhat conservative” voters, military personnel and veterans and college-educated Republicans.

Rubio will need to debunk the “robot” slam from the last debate, trying for the “Bounce back!” or “Picked himself up!” headlines that may help recapture momentum.

Rubio has to do more than simply avoid repeating himself. For him to put distance between himself and Bush, he will need to show complete command of the issues and a depth of understanding on whatever comes his way.

Rubio and Bush will no doubt clash on who is prepared to be commander in chief, with Bush arguing that he has the depth of knowledge and proven executive toughness and Rubio arguing that he has shown the best judgment and has led from the Senate on current issues. If one of them does poorly in South Carolina, this conceivably could be his final debate performance.

As for Ohio Gov. John Kasich, expectations for him are low in South Carolina. The best he could hope for is to play his experience, grown-up card and shed doubt about the senators’ readiness and Trump’s seriousness.

The candidates would be wise to paint a contrast to the Democrats who debated Thursday night. Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders painted a dreary picture of inequality, stagnation, poverty and discrimination.

The Obama years have certainly been grim. But the Republican who can demonstrate real optimism, eschew the Malthusian rhetoric and show skill in bashing Clinton (for Wall Street ties, potential legal problems regarding her email server, etc.) and Sanders (who appeared trapped in a time warp re-litigating the Vietnam War, Henry Kissinger’s record and Sanders’ support for the Obama agenda) may impress voters.

For Rubio, who has made generational change a theme of his campaign, it’s a perfect time to lay out how stark a contrast he would provide, whether on stage with the aging socialist or the ethically challenged Clinton.

Meanwhile, Trump and Cruz should be wary of overplaying their anti-Muslim, anti-immigrant cards. Do we really want a country in which immigrants who want to pursue their dreams cannot come to America to enhance our economy? Do we really want to be conducting a mass deportation plan to throw out millions of people?

And if the Democrats seem to have no answers other than massive government spending and more anti-business regulation, Cruz and Trump do not seem to have anything better.

In painting a contrast with the fear- and hate-mongering opponents, it might be refreshing to see an appeal from other GOP candidates to the better angels of the voters’ nature.

It worked for Kasich in New Hampshire, and perhaps it can work for Rubio or Bush in South Carolina.

Jennifer Rubin is a columnist for The Washington Post.