When seven of the nine remaining Republican candidates meet Saturday for their final debate before the New Hampshire primary on Tuesday, several of them will be facing their last chance to stay in the race.
Here are three things to watch for at 8 p.m. ET when Jeb Bush, Ben Carson, Chris Christie, Ted Cruz, John Kasich, Marco Rubio and Donald Trump appear on stage at the ABC News debate in Manchester, N.H.
Which Donald Trump will show up?
Will it be the chastened Trump of his concession speech in Iowa who showed a flicker of humility? Or the sore loser Trump who, the day after, claimed that Ted Cruz “illegally” stole the Iowa caucuses?
Will Trump have what Ted Cruz is calling a “Trumpertantrum”? (Trump says he likes the term so much that he might copyright it.)
And who will Trump go after on Saturday? He still has a 20-point lead in this primary, so maybe he feels so comfortable that he’ll decide to keep the insults and outbursts to a minimum.
But if not, it’s unclear which candidate Trump thinks is his biggest obstacle in New Hampshire and beyond. Does he continue his relentless attacks on Ted Cruz whom he has called a Canadian anchor baby? Or does he turn his fire on Marco Rubio, who almost surged past Trump for second place in Iowa?
Who will gang up on Marco Rubio?
The three governors — Ohio’s John Kasich, New Jersey’s Chris Christie and former Florida governor Jeb Bush — have been attacking Rubio.
Bush and Christie’s superPACs have been spending millions to stop Rubio from gaining any more momentum after his strong third-place finish in Iowa.
Bush and Christie strategists have been coordinating their attacks, comparing Rubio to another young, relatively inexperienced but charismatic first-term senator who became president — the most unflattering comparison any Republican can make.
“Why do we think it will be any different with a first-term U.S. senator from Florida who, quite frankly, doesn’t show up to work anymore?” Christie said Thursday on MSNBC’s “Morning Joe.”
“We’ve had seven years with a guy who was gifted, who could give a great speech,” Bush told NBC News’ Kelly O’Donnell, “but he’s divided the country. He has no leadership skills”
Watch to see which of Rubio’s opponents points out that Rick Santorum, who dropped out of the race and endorsed Rubio, was unable to name a single accomplishment of Rubio’s when pressed repeatedly by Morning Joe host Joe Scarborough.
And watch to see if John Kasich (who has promised to “stay positive”) joins in or pulls his punches, perhaps hoping to maintain his viability for the vice presidential slot with Rubio — or whoever becomes the nominee.
If the governors finish well behind the top three voter-getters, expect tremendous pressure on all three to drop out. John Kasich already has said he’ll go home right away if he gets “smoked.”
What does Rubio do?
Rubio has continued to move up in the polls since his strong third place finish in Iowa, and is now in second place in New Hampshire. That means expectations for him have grown, and it’s getting very hard for his campaign to maintain that a “win” for him is merely staying in the top three.
Rubio has followed a careful, cautious strategy, trying not to peak too soon or pick fights before it’s absolutely necessary. On Saturday, we’ll see if Rubio sticks to his polished talking points and stays above the fray — wearing the attacks from his opponents like a badge of honor — or if he chooses to hit back against the governors.
Rubio is emerging as the establishment alternative to either Trump or Cruz. Rubio will have to confront one of them at some point — but hopes that will not be Saturday night, but down the road as the primary battle moves into the South and Midwest.