Tonight, the candidates will take the stage for the final debate before the first votes of the 2016 election season are actually cast. While the pre-debate conversation will focus on the absence (or not) of Trump, each of the other candidates on stage has something they need to accomplish in Iowa on Monday. In order to accomplish their caucus goals, they will need to accomplish something in the debates.
Here’s a preview of what you can expect to see from each candidate in tonight’s debate.
What he needs to accomplish in Iowa: Win. Iowa is Cruz’s best and possibly only shot to win one of the early states. Cruz is a uniquely good fit for Iowa’s large evangelical voting base, and if he cannot defeat Trump in Iowa, questions will begin to circulate as to where Cruz can defeat Trump. Cruz has basically placed all his chips on winning Iowa in order to make the case to the voters that he is the only candidate who has a chance at defeating Trump – and succeeding at this argument is his best chance to win the nomination itself.
What he will attempt to accomplish in the debate: Regain control of the conversation. Cruz has weathered the Trumpnado better than probably any of the other candidates who have been caught in its eye, but he has still been distracted by issues that are irrelevant to his campaign, like the “birther” issue and the loan disclosure non-issue. Cruz desperately needs to get off the defensive and get back on to talking about the bread and butter issues that make him popular in Iowa, including a strong sales pitch defending his vision for the renewable fuel standard. Look for Cruz to take perhaps one swipe at the absent Trump, but otherwise focus on policy, policy, policy.
What he needs to accomplish in Iowa: Finish no worse than a surprisingly strong third place. It would be an absolute stunner if anyone other than Cruz or Trump won Iowa, and their battle for first will no doubt dominate the headlines. But the secondary headline, and equally important going forward, is what happens behind the Trump/Cruz pack. If Rubio finishes third with 10% or so, barely ahead of Christie or Jeb, he doesn’t really have a compelling pitch to voters or donors heading into New Hampshire. However, if he can break away from the pack a little and finish in the 15% range, he has a better shot of making an aggressive move in New Hampshire, especially if Cruz falters. A Trump win and a solid third place finish is probably the best-case scenario for Rubio to make the case that Cruz had his shot to take down Trump, and that he should be given the next shot in New Hampshire.
What he will attempt to accomplish in the debate: Show some fire. Rubio’s polish and rhetorical skills are beyond question at this point, but what he has been lacking thus far is an indication that he wants this as badly as Trump or Cruz do. Rubio is simply never going to have elbows as sharp as Trump, but he needs to show that he is capable of delivering a solid punch to the nose when the occasion calls for it. His knock-down drag-out brawl with Cruz to end the last debate was not the moment Rubio was looking for, so look for him to provoke a fight with either Jeb or Christie, both of whom have gotten increasingly nasty with Rubio on the campaign trail and in ads.
What he needs to accomplish in Iowa: Finish ahead of Jeb Bush. Christie would be elated if he could pull off a stunning third place finish in Iowa, and has been spending some increased time there, capitalizing on Bush’s continued slide. But what he really must avoid at all costs is finishing behind any of the other establishment candidates in the race. Christie is one of a large pack of candidates who need to finish second in New Hampshire to have a plausible excuse for continuing their campaign, and Christie desperately needs to finish ahead of Bush (and everyone else) to make the closing argument that Bush is finished.
What he will attempt to accomplish in the debate: Grab the mantle of alpha from Trump. Apart from Trump, Christie is probably the loudest personality in the GOP field, and he will attempt to use Trump’s absence to fill the role of the bully in the room. Christie is almost as indifferent to the truth as Trump when he levels his attacks, so he will doubtless try to swing for the fences against both Rubio and Bush and hope to sway the voters who don’t really check the fact-checkers after the fact.
What he needs to accomplish in Iowa: Finish in double digits. Ron Paul garnered over 20% of the vote in Iowa in 2012, so anything less than 10% would have to be seen as a major failure on Rand’s part. Paul has been touting his organizational strength and telling everyone who will listen that he intends to outperform the polls. If Paul’s approach will not work in Iowa, it will not work anywhere. If Paul clocks in at single digits, it will be extremely hard to justify the continuation of his campaign, especially since he has now drawn a very credible challenger for his Senate seat. If Paul finishes below 10%, he will likely continue through New Hampshire and then drop out.
What he will attempt to accomplish in the debate: Tear down Ted Cruz. Paul’s people believe that most of the voters that are potentially his have defected to the Cruz camp, so he will attempt to pry those voters away by essentially painting Cruz as a neocon and a betrayer of libertarian principles. Paul may have some sharp exchanges with the other candidates on stage if his inner wonk takes hold, but his main goal should be an aggressive and unrelenting attack on Ted Cruz.
What he needs to accomplish in Iowa: Finish ahead of Christie. Bush has more or less ceded the field in Iowa, but finishing fifth would still be an embarrassment for a candidate who spent as much time there as Bush. It would also show his essential weakness relative to Christie if a loud northeasterner can beat him in the Midwest.
What he will attempt to accomplish in the debate: Not mention giving anyone a warm kiss.
What he needs to accomplish in Iowa: Kasich is basically all in for New Hampshire at this point. The fact that he can’t move the needle in Iowa in spite of being a quintessential Midwesterner should be an indication to him that he sucks as a candidate, but self-awareness is not Kasich’s strong suit. No one really expects much of Kasich in Iowa and he is basically on the debate stage for the free media.
What he will attempt to accomplish in the debate: Gain control of his own arms.
What he needs to accomplish in Iowa: Finish in double digits. Iowa likewise ought to be ripe for Carson to pick, temperamentally, and if he flounders to a finish of 7 or 8%, his supporters will be forced to look hard in the mirror as to whether they want to continue standing by him, if doing so means handing the nomination to Trump. For a campaign that has been in turmoil of late and has also experienced grave tragedy, a disappointing single digit finish for Carson may convince him to wrap up the book tour for good.
What he will attempt to do in the debate: Stay awake.
What he needs to accomplish in Iowa: Either win or finish no more than 5% behind Ted Cruz. Probably, Trump can spin a close loss in Iowa as no big deal, especially if he can handle it with good grace. If he loses by more than 5%, it opens the door for a lot of serious conversation about the weakness of his campaign and their organization, and invites an unseemly detonation from Trump himself, who might well call the whole state “losers” on live television for rejecting him.
What he will attempt to do in the debate: Pretend that his absence won’t offend Iowans, who are notoriously picky about their prerogatives as the first state in the nation to vote.