TIME Debates

Republicans Ready for Eighth Debate

Republican presidential candidates Jeb Bush, Sen. Marco Rubio (r-FL) and Donald Trump participate in a Republican presidential debate on Feb. 6, 2016 at Saint Anselm College in Manchester, N.H.
Joe Raedle—Getty Images Republican presidential candidates Jeb Bush, Sen. Marco Rubio (r-FL) and Donald Trump participate in a Republican presidential debate on Feb. 6, 2016 at Saint Anselm College in Manchester, N.H.

In New Hampshire

Republican presidential candidates will face off in New Hampshire Saturday night in the most pivotal contest yet, just 72 hours before polls close in New Hampshire.

The current state of play is fluid, as the race in the Granite state is wide open, with about 40 percent of voters are undecided, with a further two dozen open to shifting their vote. The debate is the final opportunity for most candidates to make their closing pitch to voters, and get their final digs in before voting begins.

Reducing their workloads, Candidates and their aides have been furiously preparing for the event, moderated by ABC’s David Muir and Martha Raddatz, hoping to seize the moment — or at least avoid a an embarrassment.

Here are the key things to watch for:

Can Donald Trump regain his mojo?

The winner became the loser in Iowa. The national and Granite State poll leader skipped the last GOP debate before the Iowa caucuses—a move that contributed to his defeat. Back on stage, he must fight to maintain his lead in the state from the pair of surging senators. Trump, who cancelled an event Friday because of snow and faces doubts about his field operation, is betting that his celebrity and bombast can keep him in the good graces of New Hampshire voters. The question is can he deliver?

Who goes after Rubio—and how hard?

After a third-place finish in Iowa that beat Rubio’s carefully-managed expectations, the Florida Senator is struggling to contain talk that he could finish second, or even first in the state. Rubio has been facing a combined assault from former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush and New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, not to mention Texas Sen. Ted Cruz. The governors have been criticizing him for lacing accomplishments and relevant experience for the job, while Cruz is hitting him for being insufficiently conservative. It remains to be seen whether Trump will join the fight against the rival who has the potential to leapfrog him in the state.

Will the governors get sidelined?

There is only room for one—and none may get the chance. The three governors are in a fight for their political lives in New Hampshire, with only the top finisher earning a potential look in South Carolina as the race narrows. But all three could get left behind if they fail they slide to a muddled finish and Rubio soars. Christie, Bush and Kasich are burdened with the need to offer contrast between themselves and the senators and Trump, while also offering a positive message that can win over undecided supporters.

Who wins the Cruz-Carson argument?

The release of audio of aides to Ted Cruz campaign telling caucus leaders to falsely inform participants that Ben Carson was quitting the race has put the Iowa winner on the defensive. Carson, who has seen his support deteriorate in polls, now has the opportunity for retribution by attacking the efforts Cruz’s campaign orchestrated. Even a small pull on evangelical supporters could make the difference between victory and a middling finish for Cruz in New Hampshire, depriving him of potential momentum in South Carolina.

What happens to the missing candidate?

The GOP field’s only woman, former Hewlett Packard CEO Carly Fiorina, is being kept off the stage for failing to meet the debate eligibility criteria set by ABC. Watch for how the other candidates seek to appeal to her supporters by criticizing the decision to leave her out of the debate.

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