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Tonight’s New Hampshire GOP Debate Preview

After the Iowa caucus, the aftermath of which included Carsongate and some Trumpertantrums, the GOP debate in New Hampshire tonight will be one to watch. The field is smaller, now that main debate stage candidate Rand Paul, and undercard candidates Mike Huckabee and Rick Santorum, have all ended their campaigns. And returning to the debate stage once again is Trump, this time with a second place Iowa finish hanging over his head.

The debate’s immediate impact on the New Hampshire primary, taking place on Tuesday, February 9, could be strong. On Friday, a Suffolk University-Boston Globe poll was released showing, “One-third of likely Republican voters here said they could change their minds before Tuesday”. That’s not insignificant, especially due to the fact that the gap between top Republican candidates has been closing in recent weeks.

The debate lineup, from left to right on stage as reported by its host, ABC News, is Kasich, Bush, Rubio, Trump, Cruz, Carson, Christie. Missing from the debate is Carly Fiorina. Although she beat Kasich and Christie in the Iowa caucus, the ABC criteria keeps her shut out. She’s been vocal about the snub, calling it rigged, but her distance from a sure-to-be contentious, attack-filled debate might be a good thing for her campaign.

Kasich 

Yes, he’s still here. He finished 8th in Iowa, with just under 3,500 votes. Both Rand Paul, who just dropped out, and Carly Fiorina, who is not invited to the debate, came out ahead of him in Iowa. But ahead of Tuesday’s primary, recent polling is somewhat favorable for Kasich, showing him to be third behind Trump and Rubio with 13%. Kasich must have a good debate performance, where he actually comes across as likeable, for people to even remember him come Tuesday, though.

Bush 

One name: Rubio. Sure, Jeb greatly dislikes Trump, and awkwardly handles interactions with him on the debate stage. Yes, you could sense his huge relief at Donald’s absence at the last debate. But while Trump is an annoyance, Rubio is an enemy. Rubio is a younger, easily liked Floridian. Rubio is an effortless communicator. Bush is neither. So watch for Bush to be on attack mode, in his place right next to Rubio on stage. Bush, Rubio’s former mentor, will attempt to translate his pre and post-Iowa television attacks ads aimed at Rubio into debate talking points. We’ll see how that works out.

Rubio

Marco Rubio finished third place in Iowa, coming in only a little over 2,000 votes behind Trump. He exceeded expectations, and his post-caucus speech came across as exuberant and victorious. Now, according to a new poll from The Boston Globe and Suffolk University, he is in 2nd place behind Trump in New Hampshire with 19%. Rubio is rising. In the debate he’ll not only have to contend with attacks from Bush, but Chris Christie, too. The New York Times reported that Christie and Bush have supposedly teamed up to battle Rubio. And just on his own, Christie seeks to undermine Rubio whom her recently dubbed, “the boy in the bubble”.  Rubio will have to work at maintaining his position against attacks on both sides from governors whose lackluster campaigns are tanking fast.

Trump

He wants to make American great again, but had trouble even doing that in Iowa. The second place finisher is still clearly unnerved by not placing first. In his post-caucus Trumpertantrum, he accused Ted Cruz of stealing first place in Iowa. He’ll have to face questions about this cheating claim at the debate. He skipped the last debate, and as made clear by those ratings, his presence isn’t required for viewership to be high. So, for the first time, Trump, at the center of the stage yet again, will seem like the loser.

Cruz

Ted Cruz is riding high off of his Iowa win, and not apologizing for it. The aforementioned Boston Globe/Suffolk poll places him 5th, trailing both Kasich and Bush. But pre-caucus polling showed Trump with a several point lead over Cruz, so, as usual, polls should be taken with a grain of salt. Over at FiveThirtyEight, Cruz’s poll position when compared to other polls, is better, but that’s not the problem. Apparently, Ted Cruz’s numbers overall haven’t moved much. If his surprising win didn’t do much to raise his popularity among the electorate as a whole, his debate performance will need to fill in those gaps as best as possible. Not only will he have to respond to Trump’s claims of stealing Iowa, he’ll also have to address Ben Carson’s issues with the Cruz campaign and the Carsongate drama. He’ll have to debate as the winner of Iowa, instead of a just a fluke.

Carson

Dr. Ben Carson came in fourth in the Iowa caucus, but since then, his tussle with Cruz has dominated mention of his name in the news. Carson claims Cruz played dirty on the day of the caucus by announcing Carson was pulling out of the race, and urging voters to support Cruz instead. Despite Cruz’s insistence that his campaign did nothing wrong, Carson has continued to pursue that angle. At the debate, the same will continue. But with Carson’s reserved demeanor at debates, he risks appearing incapable of playing in the big leagues, rather than defending his own diminishing chances. Poll numbers don’t look good for Carson, and unless he’s a fierce competitor at the debate, which isn’t one of his strongpoints, those number won’t rise.

Christie 

Governor Chris Christie’s campaign is on life support, as he comes off a next-to-last finish in Iowa, where the only candidate he beat was Santorum. To combat the disinterest in his campaign, Christie is taking lessons from Jeb and directing his attacks at Rubio. On Thursday, Christie cautioned New Hampshire voters about Rubio’s position on the abortion issue. Rubio’s position includes banning all abortion in cases of rape, incest, and life of the mother, and Christie said, “I think that’s the kind of position that New Hampshire voters would really be concerned about”. No doubt that will be a topic of conversation at the debate.

With fewer candidates, and more at stake, tonight’s debate will probably be one of the most ferocious of this election cycle. Most, if not all, of the candidates are on attack, Trump is back, and for most of them, Iowa is a bad memory.

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