Thoughts Ahead Of Tonight’s Final Pre-N.H. Primary Debate

Republicans meet for a debate this evening in New Hampshire, three days before Granite State voters go to the polls.  Here are some thoughts:

— I get the sense that Marco Rubio will be the one with the biggest target on his back. Mostly the arrows will come from the candidates who didn’t even compete in Iowa, or who fared terribly: Chris Christie and Jeb Bush specifically, the ones who see Rubio as blocking their path to claim the “establishment” mantle against Donald Trump and Ted Cruz. John Kasich is in the “establishment” group as well, but I don’t see him employing the kind of negative tactics that Christie and Bush will use. You know how Christie loves to look into the camera and tell us how awful Hillary Clinton is? You know how Bush makes it clear the contempt he feels for Trump? The script has changed; both will be going all out against Rubio tonight.

— Trump probably knows he made a mistake in skipping the final pre-Iowa debate and he’s not going to miss this one. He insists that Cruz stole the Iowa caucuses so that, in addition to the constitutional question about Cruz being eligible to be president, is likely to be his main themes. But Trump is still flabbergasted that more attention has been paid to Rubio, who finished third in Iowa, than Trump, who finished second, and he resents it. So I suspect everyone will be focusing on Rubio.

Ben Carson has a legitimate beef with Cruz over the rumor, spread by the Cruz campaign in Iowa, that Carson was about to drop out and so his supporters might as well back Cruz. The Carson campaign is said to be furious about this, but is Carson capable of raising his voice? Many candidates don’t like Cruz, but perhaps the low key Carson might make the biggest case against the Texas senator.

— Cruz knows that Iowa is already old news. But he also knows New Hampshire is not likely to be do or die for him … he’s been very active in the “SEC primary” March 1st states in the South.

— If Kasich, Christie or Bush fail to impress on Tuesday in New Hampshire, what’s the rationale for their candidacies? Where are they going to win? N.H. is B.I.G. for these guys.

— There is no undercard debate. And Carly Fiorina has been bounced from the main stage. I still think her absence will be less noticed than the absence of Rand Paul, who has some important things to say about U.S. foreign policy. But that ship has sailed.
— We forget, but Trump is still the frontrunner in New Hampshire. That’s what the polls tell us. But the Iowa polls told us he was going to win in Iowa, and he didn’t. A lot at stake tonight.

— Yes, New Hampshire Republicans are far more moderate than Iowa Republicans. But lest we forget, “outsider” candidates didn’t begin in 2016. Twenty years ago, Pat Buchanan beat Bob Dole in the N.H. primary.

— Tonight’s debate is on ABC and starts at 8 pm ET.

— Did I tell you I’ll be in New Hampshire and part of New Hampshire Public Radio’s coverage of the primary all Tuesday evening? More of that later. Go to nhpr.org for more details.

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