After seven long months of what felt like an endless pre-primary campaign, the Republican reality show is finally running out of steam. The results of last week's Iowa Caucuses forced Mike Huckabee, Rick Santorum, and Rand Paul out of the race, effectively canceling the undercard debate episodes that no one ever watched. With the New Hampshire primary quickly approaching, seven GOP candidates are hoping to get their final 15 minutes of fame at the Republican presidential debate in the state Saturday night, acutely aware that this will likely be the last time they will all be up there together. It is, as CNN and World Wrestling Entertainment would put it, a fight to the death.
The debate, hosted by ABC News, will likely focus on the top three winners of the Iowa Caucuses: Texas Senator Ted Cruz, Florida Senator Marco Rubio, and of course, Donald Trump. Of to the side, Ben Carson, Chris Christie, John Kasich, and Jeb(!) Bush will be fighting as hard as they possibly can for airtime, not just in the debate, but in the Republican race going forward. The latter three have staked their presidential campaigns on a strong showing in New Hampshire, and if the polls are any indication, they'll have a lot of ground to make up in the 48 hours between the debate and the state's first-in-the-nation primary.
As you might remember, Trump skipped the last Republican cage fight, a decision that some say contributed to his disappointing second-place finish in the Iowa Caucus Monday night. But Trump has confirmed he will be in attendance at tonight's debate, virtually guaranteeing a fireworks show with Cruz, whose surprise victory in Iowa has made him the real-estate mogul's latest target. Over the last few days, Trump has been tweeting up a storm about Cruz, accusing his right-wing opponent of election fraud and deceptive campaign tactics; Saturday night's debate will be his first chance to lob those attacks IRL.
For the first time since Trump rode his escalator into the 2016 election, he's been knocked off his pedestal, pulling in just barely ahead of Rubio in the first actual nominating contest of 2016. After basing his campaign entirely on the premise that he is the one guy in the race who can win things, the loss is obviously problematic. When Trump gets on stage Saturday night, his supporters will be looking for an explanation; he'll have to actually convince voters that his support in New Hampshire, where he has been leading the polls for months, remains strong.
For Cruz, on the other hand, the debate is a much-needed opportunity to get some desperately-needed momentum—a Suffolk University/Boston Globe poll released Friday showed the Texan's support collapsing in New Hampshire, and seemed to confirm that the Gospel conservatism Cruz used so effectively in Iowa may not work in a more socially moderate—and secular—state like New Hampshire. Tonight, he needs to keep the spotlight on his candidacy, and convince voters and the media that he is not another Mike Huckabee.
The real candidate to watch, though, is Rubio. The Florida Senator's strong third place finish in Iowa sent a message to what's left of the GOP Establishment that he could be the guy who can dethrone Trump. In the past week, Rubio has risen in both national and early primary state polls, overtaking Cruz in New Hampshire just days before the state's vote.
But Rubio's success could also make him the punching bag of Saturday night's debate. Bush and Christie, who are rumored to have an unspoken alliance against the young senator, will be circling Rubio like vultures, looking for any sign of blood. For the two longshots, New Hampshire is make-or-break—and if they can't knock Rubio down in the debate, it's unlikely they'll be able to do it in the state's primary on Tuesday.
Then there's John Kasich. Like his other second-tier counterparts, the Ohio Governor didn't spend much time in Iowa, recognizing that he had no chance there. Instead, he's poured all his resources into winning New Hampshire, hoping his "adult-in-the-room" message will appeal with the state's more moderate Republican voters. Some polls—and Kasich himself—suggest it might; others, like yesterday's Suffolk/Boston Globe survey, suggest it probably won't. Given these mixed signals, Kasich is under pressure to finally swing voters in his favor during tonight's debate. He'll talk about Ohio, and balanced budgets, and Planned Parenthood, and how easy governing is for a smart executive like himself—but none of it will matter if he can't articulate why he can actually win.
That leaves us with Ben Carson. After Iowa, rumors—fueled by the Cruz campaign—swirled that the former pediatric neurosurgeon would drop out of the race. Instead, Carson insisted he was just returning to Florida for a "fresh set of clothes." He's back now, and very upset by the suggestion that he had given up his political ambitions so quickly. Expect him to say so tonight, if someone happens to remember he's there.
The debate will air at 8:30 PM EST on ABC. For more on the election, check our past coverage here and stay tuned for post-debate updates tomorrow.
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