LOS ANGELES – The biggest question ahead of Wednesday night’s Simi Valley GOP debate may be how many times candidates on stage at the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library will break the 40th president's Eleventh Commandment.
"Though shalt not speak ill of any Republican," was Reagan's oft-repeated mantra.
Nearly everyone involved in Republican politics anticipates Wednesday night will be a brawl, as candidates take turns swiping at real estate developer Donald Trump. And yet one of the most polarizing candidates on the stage, U.S. Sen. Ted Cruz, has little to gain from entering the fray.
The Texan's lower-tier Republican rivals are desperate for attention, and the quickest way to earn that is to engage Trump. And candidates polling higher than Cruz, like retired neurosurgeon Ben Carson and former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush, spent the time since the last debate tangled up in a war of words with Trump.
Cruz, meanwhile, is polling comfortably in the middle of the pack. He's neither desperate for attention nor has he gotten caught up in Trump's wrath.
For any candidate, taking on Trump is risky. Since Trump entered the race, the attacks exchanged between him and other Republicans centered around religious sincerity, professional acumen, personal appearance and other characteristics — a far cry from the old Reagan mantra.
Ahead of Wednesday night, there was a sense of anxiety among GOP presidential candidates. Some campaigns are terrified of networks excluding their candidates from future debates and worry about a lack of opportunities for a national audience until the next debate on Oct. 28.
It is true that there are high-profile Republicans who are in a panic that Trump as a nominee could be catastrophic for the party up and down the ballot in the general election. But some of the attacks on Trump have as much to do with candidate survival. More than money, attention is the prize at this point in the campaign, and there is no better way to take center stage than to take on Donald Trump.
Last week, CNN expanded the Reagan Library stage lineup to the 11 candidates who topped national polls (the previous debate included 10). Wednesday's debate will now include former Hewlett Packard CEO Carly Fiorina.
Fiorina found herself in the lower-tier debate in early August but emerged as the breakout star of that night.
There is no guarantee that forthcoming debates will feature as many candidates or will even host an undercard debate. Candidates ranked nine, 10 and 11 in national polls could face a possibility of being left out of later debates’ main stage.
To take on Trump means instant news coverage, but many in GOP politics now say that former Texas Gov. Rick Perry’s decision to do just that in July was the beginning of the end of his campaign. After a summer of lagging fundraising, Perry suspended his campaign on Friday.
Cruz chose a different direction. He avoids criticizing Trump, and as recently as a week ago, he appeared with billionaire at the U.S. Capitol in a joint rally to rail on President Obama’s Iran deal.
Rather than alienate Trump, Cruz has telegraphed that his aim is to pick up Trump followers, should the frontrunner collapse.
As a result, Cruz is not expected to be part of the ongoing spats between Trump and at least half of the people appearing on the stage. Trump has sparred with former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush, retired neurosurgeon Ben Carson, Fiorina and U.S. Sen. Rand Paul, R-Ky.
The never-ending engagements, often nasty in tone, have led to expectations that CNN moderators will coax Trump and his rivals into side fights.
Cruz, however, is already aiming to turn the debate into a fundraising opportunity and indicated to supporters that he will be relevant.
"You see, immediately after tomorrow night's GOP debate I'm going to come under some vicious attacks," he wrote to supporters. "The elite media, left wing pundits and politicians and leftist blogosphere are already planning a full on frontal assault on me and my campaign."
The infighting is beginning to wear thin in the early nominating contest states. At least one top Iowa Republican is ready for a change in discourse.
“At some point, the candidates are going to outline their differences on policy rather than personality,” said Iowa GOP Co-Chairman Cody Hoefert. “Iowa voters are really starting to make up their minds and getting serious about who they’re going to caucus for.”
Patrick Svitek contributed to this report.