He’s back. At center stage.
A week after skipping a Republican debate in a spat with Fox News, Donald Trump, the provocateur who’s already upended the race to the presidency, will return to the debate spotlight Saturday night. But it’s a different Trump, this time on uncertain footing after a disappointing second-place finish in Iowa.
Seven of the top-polling candidates will be on the stage for the 9 p.m. EST faceoff on ABC News, a field small enough for any candidate to grab attention but still large enough that those who really need the exposure could find themselves overshadowed.
With New Hampshire voters set to cast ballots Tuesday in the nation’s first primary, a week after the Iowa caucuses, each thrust and parry will be criticrucialcal.
There will be no shortage of fresh material: Since the candidates traded the cornfields of Iowa for New England-style town halls, Trump has accused Iowa first-place finisher Ted Cruz of stealing the caucus, Chris Christie has disparaged rising third-place finisher Marco Rubio as “the boy in the bubble” and a trailing Jeb Bush has dispatched his popular mother, former first lady Barbara Bush, to vouch for his niceness.
He’s decent, honest – everything we need in a president.
Barbara Bush on her son Jeb
Trump, by virtue of his showing in the polls, will take center stage. He’ll be flanked by Cruz and Rubio. Also onstage, two current and one past governor struggling to carve out space in the moderate lane: Christie of New Jersey and John Kasich of Ohio, and Bush, a former governor of Florida. Retired neurosurgeon Ben Carson, who news reports say has dramatically cut back staff, will round out the field.
There will be no undercard debate. Three candidates who frequently appeared in that forum quit the race after Iowa: Mike Huckabee, Rand Paul and Rick Santorum. ABC didn’t invite Carly Fiorina, the former Hewlett Packard executive whose scrappy showing at an early undercard earned her a prime-time spot; she’s protested her exclusion to the Republican National Committee.
It’s time for the RNC to demand that media executives step aside and let voters hear from all of us.
Carly Fiorina, excluded from debate
Post-Iowa, polls show Trump remains the party’s front-runner in New Hampshire, with 30 percent of likely primary voters. Rubio has edged up on him, polling at 17 percent in a new NBC/WSJ/Marist poll. Cruz is a close third at 15 percent.
What each will face:
CRUZ: The surprise Iowa winner, with a deep appeal to evangelicals, isn’t a natural fit for flinty New Hampshire. But he’s made an effort to court voters, holding a number of town halls and taking questions from the audience. Look for him to defend himself against accusations of dirty politics, including a suggestion to Iowa voters that Carson was dropping out.
“This was absolutely deliberate,” Carson told Fox News of messages urging his supporters to back Cruz. “The real question is is anything going to be done about it? Or is it just politics as usual?”
TRUMP: Which Trump will show up? The brash billionaire who hurls insults and smirks at his rivals, or the candidate who in recent days has largely eschewed personal attacks and engaged in the kind of retail politicking that voters in New Hampshire like to see?
And how will the other candidates handle Trump, who tops the polls but bears fresh wounds from a less-than stellar showing in Iowa? Will the debate be on the issues or on Trump, who acknowledged this week that skipping the face-to-face debate to instead host a fundraiser for veterans’ organizations likely cost him votes?
“Some people were disappointed that I didn’t go into the debate,” Trump said of his second-place finish. Yet ever Trump, he insisted it was worth it, as he raised “$6 million for the vets in one hour.”
RUBIO: The Florida senator’s third-place showing in Iowa has helped him surge in New Hampshire among voters big on electability, but it’s also made him a chief target among his rivals, who charge that he runs an overly cautious campaign. He needs to be able to show he can participate in the fray. And look for him to defend his Senate record after opponents pounced when Santorum endorsed him but was unable to cite any Rubio accomplishments in the Senate.
THE GOVERNORS: New Hampshire may be the last best stand for the three state chief executives, who might face increasing pressure to drop out and coalesce around Rubio if he does well. They’re bunched up in the polls, with Kasich at 10 percent, Bush at 9 and Christie at 4 percent in the latest NBC/WSJ/Marist poll.
All three will seek to make the case that he represents the best mainstream alternative to Trump or Cruz and that he is the most serious, best-prepared candidate. Bush, who entered the race promising to run as his “own man,” has embraced his family as his campaign has failed to find traction. He may be questioned on his decision to use his brother former President George W. Bush in South Carolina.
Christie and Kasich have largely pinned their campaigns on New Hampshire. Christie will tout his endorsement from the New Hampshire Union Leader and Kasich will point out that he’s held more town halls in the state than any other candidate. He was scheduled to hold his 100th on Friday – on track to surpass the 100 that John McCain held in 2008.