While the veneer of civility remains intact among the Republican pool, a few scratches are showing, as George Bush and John McCain scrap over an increasingly slim margin and attack each other's tax plans. "McCain will say Bush's plan favors the wealthy, and Bush will accuse McCain of not being a real Republican, in light of his so-called 'Democratic' tax platform," says Dickerson. And while it's unclear whether anyone will have the chutzpah to attack McCain's campaign finance reform stance, the Arizona senator may be weakened by Wednesday's reports that he pressured the FCC to vote on an issue close to the heart of a major McCain campaign contributor. "Anyone who brings it up needs to be very careful," says Dickerson. "Attacking McCain on campaign finance is a surefire way to escalate the rhetoric, and it starts the aggressor down a road he may not want to take."
As for the rest of the pack, Thursday night is a chance to drive home their key messages, and push their agendas as vigorously as possible. No matter how dismal a showing the also-rans make, don't look for anyone to bow out in the next three weeks, says Dickerson. "Unless there's a serious problem, why bother dropping out at this point, so close to the primary?" Even the threat of a poor showing in the coming weeks isn't enough to weaken the underdogs' steely resolve to stick it out, he adds. "Candidates whose numbers could be so low as to be embarrassing seem to be impervious to embarrassment."