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Ohio Voters Eager to Evaluate Trump in Cleveland Debate

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The stage for the Republican presidential primary debate is seen at the Quicken Loans Arena on August 6, 2015 in Cleveland, Ohio. AFP PHOTO/MANDEL NGANMANDEL NGAN/AFP/Getty Images MANDEL NGAN / AFP - Getty Images

CLEVELAND -- Ohio may be Gov. John Kasich’s stomping grounds, but leading up to the first Republican presidential debate the name on every Ohioan’s lips is Donald Trump’s.

All 17 Republican presidential contenders are here for Thursday night's two debates -- one featuring the top ten candidates in the polls and an earlier debate with the other seven. But his fans and critics alike across the state this week all say it is Trump, the front-runner in the polls, they will be closely watching.

Everyone, it seems, is waiting to see what "The Donald" says next.

“Kasich, [Ben] Carson, and obviously Donald Trump,” said Randy Tharp, a Youngstown, Ohio, area postal worker, when asked who he’d be watching for on the debate stage.

Donald Trump on the Debate: 'I Want to Be Me' 2:30

“He’s sparked a lot of debate with some of the things he’s come out with during his campaign. Let’s see what the other Republicans have to say about it.”

While Trump may have many tuning in, it has some Republican officials wary of any further damage Trump could do to the party’s brand. Ohio Senate President Keith Faber, who’s supporting Kasich in the race, said his main concern for the candidates is “making sure our nominee can win" in the general election.

“I think it’s going to be a very hard sell for Donald trump to win Ohio,” he said.

Some Ohio Republicans said they’d be watching to see one of the candidates stand up to the real-estate mogul once and for all. Joseph Unger, a 22-year-old student volunteering for Republican Sen. Rob Portman’s campaign, said having Trump in the debate brings a “reality-tv-show-esque-ness” to the proceedings.

“I want someone to stand up to him because he is kind of a brute,” Unger said. “I want someone to stand up to him and show him up and kind of get that out of there.”

Tump may offer a useful foil — but also a potential trap — as candidates seek to stand out from the pack. He’s still polling at the top of the field, getting just over 24 percent according to the Real Clear Politics average of polls, while the candidate at the bottom of the top ten — Ohio’s son, John Kasich — is getting less than three percent.

In the middle of that upper level are a handful of candidates who have suffered negative press about their flailing campaigns and loss of support since entering the race, including Sens. Rand Paul and Marco Rubio. Even former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush, previously viewed as the top contender, enters the debate with question marks about his performance in the campaign so far.

But going after Trump, as Unger is hoping to see, risks getting tangled in a web of gaffe one-upmanship where all candidates come out muddied by the exchange. That could be why some of the candidates hinted they’d be playing it safe in the debate.

When asked how he plans to differentiate himself from the rest of the pack, Kasich told NBC News, “I really don’t.”

Republican Debates Reimagined as Tournament Bracket 1:36

“I just plan to tell people who I am, and what my record is, and it's not any more complicated than that,” he said.

“I’m just me, so we'll figure out whether I’m different than anybody else. I'm just an individual, and so is everybody else, so we'll see what happens.”

Still, the political theater of all 10 meeting on stage for the first time will draw some 4,500 to the downtown Cleveland arena Thursday night, according to official estimates.

Many of those debate-watchers arrived in Cleveland earlier this week for Republican National Committee events, filling the hotels to capacity and flooding the local bars and shops. It’s a crowd that Emily Lauer, communications director for Cleveland’s tourism agency, said is “perhaps not to the level of the [celebration after the Eastern Conference win of the] Cleveland Cavaliers — but close.”

The downtown Renaissance Hotel, where the Republican National Committee is hosting its Summer Meeting, is the main hub for party operatives and candidates. Its hallways have the feel of a family reunion at times, party chairmen from distant states lassoed with RNC lanyards exchanging back-pats and handshakes under the crystal chandeliers.

Many arrived as early as Tuesday for a full week of RNC meetings and events, including some of the presidential candidates. Rick Perry was spotted leaving the hotel restaurant Tuesday night, dressed casually in sweatpants, a fleece and a baseball cap.

Perry was edged out of the debate by Kasich, but will participate in a 5 p.m. “Happy Hour” debate hosted by Fox on Thursday for the rest of the field that didn’t make the cut. But the demotion didn’t seem to phase the former Texas governor. He found time for a lighthearted moment in Cleveland on Wednesday night, posting a shot of himself posing as a statue on his Instagram account with a caption that refused to acknowledge his second-tier status.

“Having a little fun before tomorrow’s #GOPDebate!” he wrote.