The Republican "undercard" debate Thursday night concluded with all three candidates promising that they'd be the best to take on the Democratic front-runner - glossing over, for the moment, the seven other Republicans they'd have to beat first.
"You cannot wait to see the debate between me and Hillary Clinton. You would pay to see that fight," said former tech executive Carly Fiorina. Fiorina then cast herself as a stand-in for women everywhere, saying she'd been told to accept less than the best her whole life - and would not stand by while the United States was told to do the same with Clinton.
"Citizens, it is time," Fiorina said, echoing - consciously or unconsciously - the "Saturday Night Live" parody of Clinton herself. "We must take our country back."
The other two candidates on the stage, former senator Rick Santorum (Pennsylvania) and former Arkansas governor Mike Huckabee, talked about races they'd run against Clinton's allies. "You want a fighter? You want a winner? I'd appreciate your vote," Santorum said.
In a pugnacious, fearful debate - in which one candidate raised the prospect of a nuclear doomsday and another the prospect of government taking people's guns - they concluded in hopes that something stuck. But if nothing else, at least they were there. In his closing statement, Santorum mocked another candidate who felt that the undercard debate was beneath him.
"I'm going to take some of Rand Paul's time here for a second," Santorum said after his own speaking time had run out, speaking of the Kentucky senator who would accept nothing less than the main stage.
Earlier in the evening, Santorum had sought to reframe a plan to deport undocumented immigrants as a "gift" from the United States to both the immigrants and their home countries, bringing the benefit of American-educated and American-assimilated people.
"I'm going to give them the gift of being able to help the country they were born in. We're gonna export America," Santorum said when asked about his plans to increase deportations of people who entered the country illegally. "They can start a renaissance in their country so they won't be coming here anymore!" he said to loud applause.
The tone of Thursday night's debate was unusually fearful and confrontational, as all three candidates onstage hoped for a Hail Mary - a single breakthrough moment that would elevate them to the top tier of candidates at long last.
For Huckabee, the plan seemed to be playing up conspiracies by President Obama to crack down on gun owners - and even seize firearms from lawful owners. Huckabee was cheered when he said he'd encouraged gun sellers to disobey Obama's latest executive actions that expanded background checks for gun sales. Huckabee said he wasn't sure that Obama could be trusted to leave guns in their owners' hands: " 'If you like your gun, you can keep it too,' " Huckabee said, paraphrasing a famous - and unkept - promise by Obama that Americans could keep the health insurance they had after his health-care bill passed. "Frankly, we don't buy it. He's lost his credibility," Huckabee said.
Santorum, for his part, raised fears of an apocalyptic attack by Iran, which he said would develop a nuclear weapon because of Obama's efforts to sign - and keep - a nuclear deal. Santorum said that Iran was not like other countries, and that it might use the weapon to hasten a doomsday for religious purposes. An "electromagnetic pulse" attack, involving a nuclear weapon detonated in the upper atmosphere, could shut down all electronics in the United States, Santorum said, repeating some of his deeply worried messaging from the campaign trail.
Huckabee also offered skepticism about the U.S. military effort in Afghanistan, saying that he saw little hope for rebuilding a nation "like the land of the Flintstones."
"It's been that way for thousands of years," Huckabee said of Afghanistan, although parts of that country were relatively modern before the long and destructive fighting that began with the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan in 1979. Huckabee had been asked whether continuing American efforts to aid the Afghan government against Taliban militants was worthwhile. He gave no outright answer, but seemed skeptical that it was. "I don't know what we're going to make it look like. You can't create for other people a desire for freedom and democracy."
The issue of national security dominated the early minutes of the undercard debate, which - unfortunately for the three candidates - may be the least consequential of the presidential cycle so far. The debate itself was held either at dinnertime or during work hours for most Americans, and its highest-polling candidate, Fiorina, was polling at less than 3 percent nationally.
All three candidates criticized Obama for being too passive and permissive in foreign policy, and all promised more aggressive stances toward rivals such as Iran and Russia, as well as the Islamic State. Fiorina was asked whether, in an effort to fight the Islamic State, she would accept an alliance with Russia and Iran. She said no, and added that the United States must stick by Saudi Arabia in its ongoing tensions with Iran.
"Saudi Arabia is our ally, and Iran is our adversary," Fiorina said after offering a list of Middle Eastern allies whose leaders she knew personally. "Vladimir Putin and Russia are our adversary. We cannot outsource leadership in the Middle East to Iran and Russia."
Fiorina was also skeptical of Obama's latest efforts to expand background checks for gun buyers. So was the audience: When a Fox Business Network moderator noted that polls show widespread support for expanded background checks, the crowd booed.
"Not in this room," said Santorum.
That's what the polls show, the moderators replied.
"And we all believe the poll data all the time, don't we?" Fiorina said.
Earlier, Fiorina had denounced both GOP front-runner Donald Trump and Democratic front-runner Hillary Clinton as examples of "crony capitalism."
The difference, Fiorina said, was that Clinton works inside government to benefit cronies in the private sector, while "Donald Trump sits outside government and rakes in billions buying people like Hillary Clinton," Fiorina said.
The undercard, like the main event, was televised on Fox Business Network. The debates are being held in North Charleston, South Carolina, a key early-voting state.
At the main debate, which begins at 9 p.m., viewers will see a race that has split into two bitter mini-battles. One is between Iowa front-runners Trump and Sen. Ted Cruz, whose old truce unraveled into insult-trading this week.
The other battle is between everybody else: a universe of candidates hovering in the single digits or low teens, all focused on taking one another out.
That group - highly accomplished, great-on-paper candidates such as Ohio Gov. John Kasich, New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, Sen. Marco Rubio (Florida) and former Florida governor Jeb Bush - are all relying on some variant of the same strategy: Survive long enough for voters to come to their senses.
In both debates, candidates could be asked about the threat posed by the Islamic State, which was possibly linked to attacks using bombs and gunfire in Jakarta, the capital of Indonesia. The attacks, carried out Thursday, left at least seven people dead, including five attackers. Its tactics seemed to echo those used by Islamic State-linked militants in Paris in November, which killed 130.
The main debate could bring a revealing, in-person faceoff between Trump and Cruz. They are two "outsider" candidates - though one is a U.S. senator, and the other is a golf-course-owning billionaire with so much clout that an ex-president attended his third wedding. But for weeks, they gave each other a pass.
Now, they can't both win Iowa.
So Cruz has begun to say that Trump is unserious.
And Trump has begun to say that Cruz is . . . Canadian.
"Ted Cruz: Is he a natural-born citizen?" Trump yelled during a rally in Reno, Nevada, on Sunday. It was a reference to the fact that Cruz was born in Canada, though his mother is a U.S. citizen.
The crowd yelled back: "No!"
"I don't know," Trump said. "Honestly, we don't know. Who the hell knows."
Trump has continued to bring up Cruz's eligibility on the campaign trail this week, but he said in an interview with CNN's Erin Burnett on Wednesday that he will not bring the issue up at the debate.
Cruz, in the past, had seemed reluctant to attack Trump - perhaps hoping that he would inherit Trump's anti-establishment coalition if Trump himself faded. Now, the Texas Republican seems to have given up on that - or perhaps he is trying to hasten Trump's fade a bit faster.
"The Donald seems to be a little bit rattled," he said on WRKO in Boston.
In recent days, for example, Cruz took direct aim at Trump on several fronts: tying the billionaire to Democratic presidential front-runner Hillary Clinton, questioning his ability to win a general election, casting doubt on his ability to serve as commander in chief and disputing his "New York values." (Trump has responded by saying he's proud to have "New York values," citing the city's sacrifices on Sept. 11, 2001.)
Cruz also took aim at Trump's competence. "Does a potential commander in chief know what the nuclear triad is, much less is he or she prepared and able to strengthen it and keep this country safe?" Cruz asked on "The Hugh Hewitt Show."
In a Republican debate last month, Trump was asked about the nuclear triad - the submarines, bombers and land-based missiles that could deliver the nation's nuclear weapons - and had trouble with the explanation.
For Cruz, the risk is that he will provoke Trump's gift for insults: The billionaire has managed to isolate his rivals' weaknesses and call them out in a way that sticks.
During a campaign rally in Pensacola, Florida, on Wednesday night, Trump bragged that rivals who have attacked him in the past have seen their poll numbers tank, sometimes to the point of being pushed out of the race.
"Now, we have another debate tomorrow. They'll all be attacking me - like, you know, they attack. Whatever. Right? Whatever. What-ever," Trump said, pursing his lips and shaking his head, as some in the crowd started chanting: "We want Trump! We want Trump!"
"They attack," Trump said, "but they don't understand that unlike this country, I attack back."
Cruz may also hear criticism from Trump and the other candidates over loans from Citibank and Goldman Sachs, which helped him finance his run for the Senate in 2012. The loans themselves were not against campaign-finance rules, but Cruz failed to disclose them in his campaign filings at the time. The loans were first reported by the New York Times. Cruz has said the failure to report them was an inadvertent oversight.
Thursday's main-event debate will be the smallest of this crowded campaign so far: just seven candidates onstage, down from the high of 11 during a debate in September.
Sen. Rand Paul (Kentucky), the libertarian-leaning candidate who battled with Rubio and Christie over their hawkish foreign policies, is sitting this one out. Paul's polling numbers were so low he was relegated to the undercard debate. He then refused to show up at all, saying he was not running an undercard kind of campaign. He also has asked Fox to reconsider and put him on the main stage.
Of the others on the main stage, the candidate under the most attack might be Rubio, who has tried to run in both the outsider and insider "lanes" of this campaign and angered the candidates in both.
Christie, in particular, has portrayed Rubio as a truant schoolboy because of Rubio's frequent absences during Senate votes.
Rubio, who tends to counterpunch with policy criticisms, has said Christie's record on guns, education and Planned Parenthood doesn't align with modern conservatives.
Kasich has shown surprisingly good results in New Hampshire lately, raising his hopes that he will be the "establishment" candidate who survives to take on Trump and Cruz.
Now, his job will be to improve upon past debate performances, in which Kasich often seemed peevish or too aggressive. After a November debate, when the Ohio governor repeatedly jumped in to answer or interject thoughts about other candidates' questions, a focus group convened by Frank Luntz gave him one of the lowest scores the Republican strategist had ever seen.
"Look, I don't know what I'm going to do tomorrow," Kasich said Wednesday. "I will tell you that we're second in New Hampshire and doing very well."
After taking (and dodging) a few more questions about what might come up, Kasich grinned and commented on the very process of politics.
"Most people, they get kind of loose and have fun once they lose, and everybody asks: Why didn't they have fun before they lost?" he said. "I'm having fun right now."
Then there is Bush: once this race's front-runner, now one of its longer shots.
Once again, he is hoping for a debate performance that will reset the race. That has not gone well in the past: In a previous debate where Bush badly wanted a breakout, he picked a fight over Rubio's voting and attendance record in the Senate and provoked a damaging verbal takedown.
This time, Bush seems determined not to overthink it.
He may be overthinking it anyway.
"We don't have really much of a strategy. It's just stop thinking of it as a debate. Don't call it a debate - that gets me thinking the wrong way," Bush said in Iowa this week. "It's a performance, it's a chance for me to express my views about things that I think are important for our country. There may be some comparin' and contrastin' - I've noticed that since January started that the fur is starting to fly, that people are starting to go after each other a bit."
Bush arrived in Charleston on Wednesday with his wife and three grown children in tow, all of whom plan to be in attendance Thursday night. He will keep to his predebate ritual of attending a Catholic Mass and having lunch with his family, aides said.
Ahead of the debate, Bush once again seemed to telegraph his plans, telling Washington Post columnist Kathleen Parker in an interview that if a question posed to him begins with something like "You've said Trump isn't a serious candidate," "I'm going to go after him," Bush said. "The problem is there's too much low-hanging fruit."
The other candidate in the main debate will be retired neurosurgeon Ben Carson, whose oddball campaign - which included days-long debates about whether, as a young man, he really stabbed a friend in the stomach or menaced his mother with a hammer - now seems to be fading.
Carson has indicated that he will try to seem more aggressive during the debate - with a little "pep in my step" - with hopes of reversing the impression that he is too weak to be president. "You're going to see me not being quite so polite as to never say anything unless somebody asks me something," Carson told CNN Tuesday.