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Ready to Rumble: 8 Debate Matchups to Watch

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A technician adjusts a television camera before the start of the CNN Republican presidential debates at the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library and Museum Wednesday, Sept. 16, 2015 in Simi Valley, Calif. (AP Photo/Tom Stathis) Tom Stathis / AP

The preseason is over, old rivalries have taken on renewed bitterness, and the stakes for early February only keep getting higher.

Yes, it’s fitting that the that the second big GOP debate is taking place just after the beginning of the NFL’s regular season. And the clash in Simi Valley has just as much potential as the weekend’s gridiron matchups to yield pile-ons, injuries, and letdowns for a fan base with bright-eyed hopes. So instead of our typical pre-debate post on “THINGS” to watch, let’s look at the eight matchups on stage that we think could change the race’s dynamics the most.

Today on @MTP: Who to Watch at the GOP Debate 1:15

Donald Trump vs. Carly Fiorina: A juggernaut is coming face-to-face for the first time on the big stage with a rival who just might have the right skill set to thwart his offense. Fiorina didn’t make the cut for the first GOP debate, but – with a well of support behind her – she muscled her way onstage in Simi Valley. Like some of the more mainstream candidates, she hasn’t been afraid to jab back at Trump, but she doesn’t have the D.C. insider baggage that has weighed down attacks by candidates like Jeb Bush. It’ll be the first time the two have interacted in person since Trump insulted Fiorina’s appearance, a slam that earned a deft response from Fiorina’s super PAC.

Hugh Hewitt versus Trump/Carson: Referees matter. And the presence of a respected conservative foreign policy wonk on the host panel for CNN is certainly going to matter for candidates with notable gaps in their knowledge of the Middle East. The last time Trump and Hewitt met, Trump labeled his questions about the Quds Force as “gotcha” material. Hewitt has tangled with Carson before too, questioning his knowledge of the history of Islam. It’s one thing to fumble a radio interview; it’s another to look like a deer in the headlights on television when a rival can easily jump in with the right answer.

Team Establishment vs. Jeb Bush: Let’s say you’re Marco Rubio, Scott Walker, Chris Christie, or any of the other candidates who can’t exactly claim to be political newbies. Does it make sense to go after Donald Trump? Or is your best bet to try to draw contrasts with the person whose name is most synonymous (fairly or not) with the Washington Establishment -- Jeb Bush? When huge majorities of GOP primary voters are saying that they prefer a candidate without a career in politics, the latter might make the most sense, and it could carry much less risk than an attempt to burn down a volatile frontrunner. And that’s especially true when GOP leaders in Congress are guaranteed to be boogeymen for their failure to derail the Iran deal.

GOP Debate Preview: Is Trump Bulletproof? 1:33

Ben Carson vs. Donald Trump: Last week, it looked like Carson was ready to rumble. He took a shot at Trump’s immigration plan, labeling it unrealistic, and THEN he pointedly noted the differences between himself and Trump when it comes to living out Christian faith. But Carson has pulled back from those comments, apologizing and insisting that it isn’t his style to get into a “gladiator fight” with a rival. Unlike in August, Carson will be right next to Trump on stage this time. How will Carson react to Trump when they’re physically next to each other? Can he turn the other cheek without looking weak, or can Trump be killed with kindness? With two candidates this unpredictable, it is simply impossible to tell.

Ted Cruz vs. Mike Huckabee: Both are courting evangelical voters and are making a big play for social conservatives in Iowa. Huckabee managed to grab the spotlight and appear on stage with the Kentucky county clerk Kim Davis earlier this month – with Cruz *in* Rowan County but sidelined from the big moment. But can the former Arkansas governor translate his pitch as well onto the debate stage as he did back in 2007-2008? Or can Cruz upstage him by playing off his position as a catalyst for a government shutdown over Planned Parenthood funding?

Rand Paul vs. Chris Christie: Great rivalries are fun, even when neither team looks destined for a championship spot. Christie and Paul certainly offered the most interesting non-Trump exchange during the last debate with their heated argument about balancing civil liberties and terror prevention. The dust-up didn’t do much for either in terms of gaining support, but it will be interesting to see if they mix it up again on one of the major issues splitting the party – even if it’s not getting as much attention as many folks expected.

John Kasich vs. Marco Rubio: Both candidates had solid performances during the last debate, and they’re both getting looks from more establishment-minded donors getting jittery about Jeb Bush. But neither was particularly rewarded in the polls for their August debut. (Kasich’s rise probably has more to do with boatloads of superPAC spending, while Rubio’s been mired in the mid-single digits all summer.) Can they repeat their strong appearances in a way that will move the needle nationally?

Scott Walker vs. Scott Walker: There might not be anyone with more to lose tonight than Scott Walker, who’s gone from the top-tier to single-digits in just the last month. His team tells NBC’s Kelly O’Donnell that he’ll be more aggressive in inserting himself into the conversation (a change of tactics after largely fading into the background during the Cleveland debate.) A former star could have the opportunity to rise to the challenge and remind fans why they liked him in the first place – or he could be his own worst enemy and overthink the fundamentals too much.