MANCHESTER, New Hampshire—An aggrieved Donald Trump returns to the debate stage Saturday night hoping to find his way into the winner’s circle in New Hampshire, while a rising Marco Rubio looks to fend off an onslaught of attacks from his rivals.
The debate comes three days before New Hampshire’s primary, a contest that will likely determine whether some Republican candidates for president in an already shrinking field will move on or be forced to abandon their White House hopes.
While Trump, a billionaire who is largely self-funding his campaign, has enough money to stay in the race, anything short of a win in New Hampshire would be a blow to his White House bid. He’s held a comfortable lead in national polls, as well as surveys in Iowa and New Hampshire for months, but had to settle for second in the kick-off caucuses.
“I think we should have come in first, to be honest with you, a lot of things happened there. A lot of things happened,” Trump said Friday during a rally in South Carolina. The real estate mogul skipped the final debate before the Iowa caucuses, but has committed to more traditional campaign activities in the days before New Hampshire’s primary.
Rubio’s third-place finish in Iowa gave him the edge in the crowded field of candidates viewed as more mainstream alternatives to the bombastic Trump and Texas Sen. Ted Cruz, the fiery conservative who won the caucuses. As a result, Rubio has faced a flurry of criticism in recent days, with his rivals questioning his experience and casting him as overly scripted.
“He’s a great guy, but he’s not a leader,” said former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush. New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie has repeatedly derided Rubio as a “bubble boy” whose staff protects him from having to answer tough questions about his record and what he would do as president.
Bush, Christie and Ohio Gov. John Kasich have largely staked their presidential hopes on New Hampshire. Those who don’t have a standout finish in New Hampshire will face swift pressure from within the Republican Party to step aside.
Also fighting to stay relevant Saturday will be retired neurosurgeon Ben Carson. After a disappointing showing in Iowa, he took time off the campaign trail and hasn’t been a major presence in New Hampshire.
Cruz carried Iowa with the support of the evangelical voters that hold significant sway in the state. In New Hampshire, he’s making an appeal for support from libertarian voters who previously helped former U.S. Rep. Ron Paul pull off respectable finishes here.
The Iowa caucuses narrowed what has been an unwieldy Republican field, allowing debate host ABC News to scrap an undercard event for low-polling candidates. The debate rules left Carly Fiorina as the only candidate without a spot on stage.
Fiorina has furiously protested her exclusion, and high profile Republicans such as 2012 nominee Mitt Romney have come to her defense. But there was no indication that ABC planned to extend a last-minute invitation to Fiorina.