Much of the Republican presidential field will face off Saturday for their first debate since Monday’s Iowa caucus and the final one before Tuesday’s New Hampshire primary. Donald Trump, Ted Cruz, Marco Rubio, Ben Carson, Jeb Bush, John Kasich, and Chris Christie will step foot on the ABC News stage at around 8 p.m. ET, and it could very well be the last time we see several of those men in a debate this year. (We’ve already likely seen the last of Carly Fiorina and Jim Gilmore, neither of whom qualified for this one.) Here’s what to watch for on Saturday night:
Trump returns to the debate stage after boycotting last week’s Fox News–hosted affair in Iowa, ostensibly because of a stupid feud with the network. Plenty has changed in those nine days: Trump, who once seemed invincible, now looks wounded. His second-place finish in Iowa would have been impressive in a vacuum—he won nearly a quarter of the vote in less-than-friendly territory, and garnered more total votes than either of the two previous GOP caucus-winners—but instead got him branded a loser because of his blustery predictions of complete and total victory.
Trump will want to use his spot in the center of the stage on Saturday to reassert himself at the center of the Republican conversation. That will be easier said than done since Cruz’s Iowa victory and Rubio’s media-fueled momentum will allow them to suck up much of the oxygen in the room. Still, Trump’s performance at the most recent debate he attended suggests that he’s growing more comfortable with the format. As he loves to remind people, he’s better on the counterattack than he is on the straight-out offensive—and he’s likely to get the chance to put those talents to good use given many of his Republican rivals would love to try to deliver a knockout blow before the billionaire can rebound with a potentially race-altering victory in New Hampshire.
Buckle Up, Marco
Trump is likely to draw some of Saturday’s fire, but it’s Rubio who should brace himself for an onslaught of attacks. The Florida senator left Iowa riding high thanks to his better-than-expected performance and the perception that he’s finally consolidating the establishment vote. At long last, he’s finally passed Jeb in the endorsement race, and he may soon have the insider lane all to himself if he can best Bush, Kasich, and Christie in second-place by a comfortable enough margin in New Hampshire. Of course, those three men know that any path they have to the nomination now runs straight through Rubio (whose own path is narrower than many think). They’ve been hitting Marco for weeks, but Bush and Christie in particular have taken the attacks to nasty levels in recent days, with the former suggesting Rubio isn’t ready to be president and the latter calling him “the boy in the bubble” every chance he gets.
Rubio, though, needs to worry about more than just his party-approved rivals attacking him. Cruz benefits the longer the establishment heat remains contested, and he’s also likely to take more than a few swipes—immigration-themed and otherwise—at Rubio, as he has in previous debates. (The Texas senator will also be eager to get noticed at a time when, somewhat unexpectedly, he’s being a bit overlooked.) And then, of course, there’s Trump. Rubio and Trump have largely stayed out of each other’s way this year, but that could end this weekend. Trump knows that a loss in New Hampshire would do much more damage to his winners-win brand than his Iowa defeat did. And of his rivals currently fighting for second place in the Granite State, Rubio is perhaps the only one with a semi-realistic chance of surging the entire way to victory in the final days before the primary.
Now or Never
Kasich, Christie, and Bush are running out of time to make their mark in the GOP race. A strong performance by Rubio would increase the pressure from their establishment-aligned allies and donors for them to drop out of the race and allow Marco to consolidate the support of those voters who don’t like Trump or Cruz. Kasich has conceded that a poor performance in New Hampshire would mean an end to his campaign. Christie claims he’ll press on regardless—but it’s hard to imagine he’d be able to succeed in South Carolina if he comes up short in New England. It’s also unclear if the New Jersey governor has the resources to even try. He raised only $3 million in the final three months of last year and began 2016 with only $1.1 million in the bank.
Jeb’s future is less certain. Party power brokers have made it clear they don’t want him continuing to attack Rubio if he becomes the establishment’s only hope, but Bush has the resources to keep fighting if he wants to and there’s little anyone can do about it. He also seems to believe that New Hampshire is not his final shot at glory. On Friday, his super PAC began airing a new commercial in South Carolina featuring George W. Bush, and the former president is also expected to hit the campaign trail in the Palmetto State later this month to campaign for his younger brother. Toss in an endorsement from South Carolina Sen. Lindsey Graham last month, and Jeb will be tempted to soldier on through the Feb. 20 primary, if not beyond.
So far this campaign, Carson has been more likely to be mistaken for being asleep on the debate stage than he is to say something interesting. I don’t necessarily think that will change on Saturday—though there are at least a few signs it might. Carson is said to be furious that Cruz’s campaign spread rumors on caucus night that he was dropping out, which at least creates the possibility of prime-time conflict. “Dr. Carson feels absolutely robbed, violated," confidante Armstrong Williams told Politico this week. "He realizes, the Democrats are not his enemies trying to malign him. It’s people who smile in his face, shake his hand, go out to dinner with him—and yet, they’re trying to destroy him behind his back.” We’ll have to wait and see whether the neurosurgeon is willing to break his political Hippocratic oath and finally do some harm to a rival. Regardless, expect to see him wearing a fresh set of clothes.