What to watch for in the debate

Getty
Manchester, N.H. — Seven Republican presidential contenders will square off Saturday night at St. Anselm College in Manchester, N.H., just three days before the first-in-the-nation primary here.
 
The energy is palpable: The airwaves in the tiny New England state are flooded with political ads; campaign literature is being stuffed into mailboxes; the candidates are holding endless town halls and rallies; and thousands of volunteers are working phone banks or standing along snowy streets holding up candidate signs in a last-minute get-out-the-vote effort.
 
ADVERTISEMENT
The GOP field has winnowed considerably in the wake of the Iowa caucuses and figures to do so again after votes are cast in New Hampshire, raising the stakes for all of the candidates Tuesday.
 
New Hampshire voters are notorious for breaking late, and polls show that about half of voters still haven’t made up their minds.
 
Here are four things to watch as the candidates make their final pitch to voters in the Granite State.

Return of Trump

Donald TrumpDonald TrumpSanders aide: Easier for Dems to unify if Wasserman Schultz steps down Clinton fundraises on news that Trump has clinched nomination WATCH LIVE: Trump holds news conference after clinching GOP nomination MORE will reclaim his spot at center-stage Saturday night, rejoining his rivals after skipping the final debate before the Iowa caucuses as part of his ongoing feud with Fox News.
 
The billionaire businessman has acknowledged that the move may have hurt him in Iowa.
 
Many believed Trump had ulterior motives in skipping the last debate — he had opened up a lead over Ted CruzTed CruzTrump clinches GOP nomination Eleven states sue Obama over transgender bathroom directive Poll: Clinton leads Trump in Wisconsin by double digits MORE in the Hawkeye State, and some speculated he was playing it safe and running out the clock.
 
Trump has an even bigger edge heading into the New Hampshire primary, where he leads the next closest contender, Marco RubioMarco RubioRNC official defends Susana Martinez after Trump criticism GOP Senate hopeful wants to go beyond Trump's Muslim ban Trump clinches GOP nomination MORE, by 14 points, according to the RealClearPolitics average.
 
That raises the question of whether Trump will play it safe — his debate performances have typically been more muted than his rallies — or go in for the kill against the other contenders.
 
Of particular interest is how Trump handles Rubio. The Florida senator nearly caught him in Iowa and has been making a late charge in New Hampshire. 
 
Trump has largely allowed the other contenders to do the dirty work against Rubio, but that might change Saturday.
 
However Trump plays it, the stakes will be high. After a disappointing second-place finish in Iowa, Trump faces a must-win contest in New Hampshire, where the long-time front-runner must prove he can turn the energy around his campaign into hard votes.

Rubio in the cross-hairs

The Florida senator finally flashed signs that he’s capable of delivering on his potential last week in Iowa, where a late run catapulted him to a surprisingly strong third-place finish.
 
Rubio followed that up by unrolling an impressive cadre of high-profile new supporters, including Sen. Tim Scott (R-S.C.), and two former 2016 GOP presidential candidates, Rick Santorum and Bobby Jindal. Rubio also surpassed Jeb Bush, his former mentor in Florida, in endorsements from congressional lawmakers.
 
If Rubio didn’t have the attention of his rivals before that, he does now.
 
Two other contenders running in the mainstream conservative lane — Jeb Bush and Chris Christie — have been hammering away at him this week in New Hampshire, attacking him on everything from his relative lack of experience to his position that abortion should be illegal even in cases of rape or when the life of the mother is threatened.
 
Expect that to continue on Saturday night. 
 
Cruz will also be looking to keep the pressure on Rubio. Those two have been fighting fiercely for months, and their battles over immigration and national security have been among the most spirited at previous debates.
 
And while Rubio has largely escaped the wrath of Trump so far, that might be about to change. 
 
This week, Rubio finally started throwing elbows at the celebrity businessman, saying that being president is “not like being a real estate developer.”
 
That dig, in addition to Rubio’s rising poll numbers, might be all it takes to get Trump’s attention.

Last chance for the governors

Bush, Christie and John Kasich face a reckoning in New Hampshire.
 
All three finished low in Iowa, and all three have staked their campaigns on a strong finish in the Granite State.
 
The polling numbers are maddening for this trio. For months they’ve split support among mainstream conservatives, preventing any one of them from breaking free from the pack.
 
Complicating matters for the governors is the presence of Rubio, who has surged at just the right time and passed all three.
 
Even more frustratingly for them, Cruz is running neck-and-neck with all three in a state that does not typically reward social conservatives.
 
There’s still time for each to reach the voters who remain on the fence, but a strong debate performance Saturday night will be paramount.
 
Bush can’t afford the kind of lackluster performance that has dogged him throughout the campaign. 
 
Kasich must avoid any head-scratching moments. 
 
Christie needs to resonate on an emotional level on the national stage as he’s been able to do at local town halls.
 
It’s the last chance for all of them, as anything worse than a second-place finish could spell doom.

The ‘dirty tricks’ debate

Cruz has been under fire for alleged “dirty tricks” at the Iowa caucuses, an issue that is sure to flare up at the debate.
 
Just hours before voters in Iowa went to caucus last week, the Cruz campaign spread a false report that Ben Carson was dropping out of the race. His surrogates urged Carson supporters at several precincts to back Cruz instead.
 
The Cruz campaign has blamed a CNN report for the misunderstanding, but regardless, the controversy has snow-balled on him.
 
Trump has declared that Cruz stole the election from him — Cruz finished ahead by about 6,000 votes out of 180,000 cast. Trump has demanded a do-over and also threatened legal action.
 
The Carson campaign is apoplectic and demanding Cruz fire any staffers that were responsible. Cruz has apologized but said he will not discipline anyone.
 
The controversy cut into Cruz’s victory lap after the Iowa caucuses and has left a pall over what was otherwise an impressive showing. He’ll have to answer for it in front of voters on Saturday night.