Eleven Republicans will spar Wednesday at their second debate of the 2016 presidential race, where the gloves may well come off as rivals seek to tear down populist billionaire frontrunner Donald Trump.
The showdown at the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library comes as new polls find the tough-talking real estate developer soaring above the competition, and retired neurosurgeon Ben Carson surging into second amid the summer of anti-establishment, anti-Washington discontent.
Trump has extended his lead to 33 percent support, with Carson at 20 percent, according to a Washington Post-ABC News poll released Monday. More than half of potential voters now back non-politicians in the race, it showed.
Jeb Bush, perhaps the most establishment figure in the Republican pack, came third at just eight percent.
He and other candidates will struggle to emerge from Trump's shadow with a breakout performance as the race heads into the crucial months before the first nomination contests next February.
After the party's debut debate last month drew a record 24 million viewers, this week's CNN-hosted showdown in California expects a similarly massive television audience, one that holds the power to reward a star turn -- or seal the doom of poorer performers.
Will the anti-establishment fever break, allowing Bush, Senator Marco Rubio or Ohio Governor John Kasich to shine? Or will Trump continue to assert his will on a process that has been upended ever since he entered the race in June?
Trump shrugged Monday night at the prospect of entering a lion's den with opponents eager to take swipes at the man they say is not a true conservative.
"I hear they're all going after me" at the debate, he told a crowd of several thousand during an hour-plus speech at a campaign stop in Dallas, Texas. "Whatever."
As for his standing in the new polls: "We're really killing it," he said.
While Trump remained all too aware that his rivals will seek to derail his campaign, he expressed confidence Saturday that voters were "looking for an outsider."
One of those political outsiders, former Hewlett-Packard chief executive Carly Fiorina, recently was subjected to a Trump attack when he coarsely criticized Fiorina's face to Rolling Stone magazine.
But the lone female Republican candidate delivered quite the counterpunch.
"Ladies, look at this face," Fiorina told a women's group, in comments that became part of a one-minute online ad released Monday by a pro-Fiorina group.
"This is the face of a 61-year-old woman. I am proud of every year and every wrinkle."
Such fireworks may or may not light up the stage Wednesday, as they did at the first debate when Trump clashed with a Fox moderator.
- 'More elbows thrown' -
But with candidates such as Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker, New Jersey Governor Chris Christie and Senator Rand Paul barely treading water, and Bush under immense pressure to gain ground, a Republican war of words was brewing.
"There will probably be more elbows thrown at that debate, and you're going to have your hands full," Republican National Committee chairman Reince Priebus" told CNN Sunday.
Louisiana Governor Bobby Jindal recently ripped "narcissist" Trump, saying "we cannot nominate this egomaniac."
Former New York governor George Pataki said Friday that Trump "is unfit to be president."
But Jindal and Pataki are political Lilliputians swinging at a giant. They are among four low-polling candidates attending a happy-hour debate Wednesday ahead of the main event.
Trump has warned that those who attack him only plummet in polls.
Former Texas Governor Rick Perry, who once called Trump a "cancer on conservatism," became 2016's first casualty, dropping out Friday after his campaign failed to gain traction.
Trump appeals to many voters appalled by Washington dysfunction and who appreciate his blunt talk. But some are concerned with his constant barrage.
Most Americas are "ticked off, and they want to see someone elected president who will actually get in there and make some changes," Ron Skow, 72 and a former US Marine, told AFP.
But "he can't continue on just insulting people."
Carson, whose personality could not be more different than Trump's, has gained support without using abrasive language.
After Trump questioned the former surgeon's energy and said "he's not a deal-maker," Carson said he was unlikely to launch a counterattack during the debate.
"I think we have much better things to do than that," he said Monday.