The Republican presidential candidates will debate for the eighth time on Saturday, there are a few twists this time around: It will be the last time for candidates to prove themselves before New Hampshire's first-in-the-nation primary, there now is a clear leader of the establishment pack and Trump is not the overwhelming force he once was.
The candidates, fresh off the Iowa caucuses, will be on a mission to either maintain their current positions or sway Granite State voters to give them a boost. According to the most recent NBC News/Wall Street Journal/Marist poll, released Friday and taken after the caucuses, Donald Trump is still at the top with 30 percent, followed by Florida Sen. Marco Rubio with 17 percent, Texas Sen. Ted Cruz with 15 percent and Ohio Gov. John Kasich with 10 percent. Former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush and New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie are both in single digits. Former neurosurgeon Ben Carson and former Hewlett-Packard CEO Carly Fiorina were not included in the results of this poll.
Trump still holds a commanding lead, despite his second place finish in the Hawkeye state. According to a CNN/WMUR poll released on Thursday conducted before and after the caucuses, Trump is on top with 29 percent. The post-caucuses percentage is the same as the pre-caucuses percentage, which indicates voters were not turned off by Trump's loss. An NBC News/Wall Street Journal/Marist poll, though, has Trump down from 31 to 30 percent after Iowa.
The big news after Iowa, though, is that Rubio went from third and 11 percent before the caucuses to second and 17 percent after, according to the NBC poll, is what is. That number, along with the fact that Kasich and Christie lost 1 percentage point and 3 percentage points respectively, indicates the establishment supporters have started to rally around Rubio because he was first among the group in Iowa. Bush, however, went up, indicating that some members prefer the elder Floridian over the candidate who many believe is the future of the party.
Rubio's surge also indicates that Trump's performance in Iowa did hurt him. It could be that people no longer see him as a serious candidate or as someone who is unbeatable. It could also be, though, that people have decided to flock to Rubio because of his dominant performance — he proved he could compete with Tump, finishing 1.2 percentage points behind, and dominated the establishment faction — 23.1 percent to Bush's 2.8 percent.
The CNN poll's post-Iowa sample has Rubio in second with 18 percent, followed by Cruz with 13 percent, Kasich with 12 percent and Bush with 10 percent. Christie, Fiorina and Carson finished with single digits. Rubio saw the largest increase after Iowa, 7 percentage points, most likely at the expense of Christie because he suffered the greatest loss — going from 9 percent pre-caucuses to 4 percent afterward. Bush saw an increase of one percentage point, which like the NBC poll, indicates the Floridians are causing their own split within the establishment group of candidates.
Kasich and Cruz saw a 2 percentage point jump and a 1 parentage point jump respectively. The former increased in the NBC poll while the latter decreased, which is evidence that Kasich's moderate ideals appeal and there is a split in the establishment between Rubio and Kasich, and that Cruz's Evangelical appeal does not matter as much in New Hampshire. That is because there are fewer Evangelical voters in the Granite State than the Hawkeye State.
These poll results show that Trump will needs to reinforce the idea that he is an electable candidate and can deal with the issues the country faces. Debate viewers should expect more attacks aimed at Rubio because he is now the mogul's biggest rival. He cannot rely on his ego as much as he did in Iowa, and he will need to explain why he is better than the establishment. His base understands him, but he needs to try to lure undecided voters to go him rather than one of the more traditional Republicans. He will also need to explain why he has not changed his campaign practices since Iowa, and that he can be elected without a strong ground game.
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Rubio is now target number one from the others on the stage — especially the other establishment candidates. He will be attacked for his flip-flopping on immigration reform, among other issues, but he will need to explain why the establishment should rally behind him. He also needs to explain why he is a better, and, some would say, more logical choice, than Trump.
Kasich, who has the built in support of moderate establishment voters, will need to do well enough to survive another contest. If he cannot catch up to Rubio, he needs to at least stay on par with him during the debate, and he needs to do well enough to be the establishment candidate who comes in second place. Some would say he's basically running to be the vice presidential pick at this point and that his debate performance does not really matter.
Bush is having one of those "Houston, we have a problem" moments. He is no longer the establishment's golden goose, and he is losing to someone from his home state. He has increased in the polls, but it does not appear to be enough at the present time. He will need to go after Rubio without making it seem like he is doing it out of desperation. The former governor — whose new slogan "Jeb Can Fix It" has sparked an onslaught of Twitter jokes — will need to try to prove that he outweighs Rubio in terms of experience.
Christie peaked too soon. He was endorsed by the Manchester Union Leader on Nov. 28, but that only temporarily helped him in the polls. He will need to sell himself to the people like he did to the paper's editorial board. That is not likely to happen, however, because he will probably be attacked by the other members of the establishment — Rubio, Bush and Kasich, although some do not consider him establishment – and he probably will not get a lot of speaking time.
Cruz is going to try to do well during the debate, but his ideals and values do not resonate with the people of New Hampshire quite as much as they did in Iowa, putting him at an inherent disadvantage. That will not stop him, though, as he is fights for what little Evangelical vote does exist in New Hampshire.
Carson is in a similar position because he appeals to the similar kind of voter. He is unlikely to give himself a boost, but he can certainly set himself apart (though not necessarily to any benefit) from the others on the stage by touting his experience as a physician, which is something he has done before.
All seven of those candidates will be on the debate stage in Manchester, N.H. at St. Anselm's College Institute of Politics. There was controversy leading up to the debate because Fiorina was not included, making her the only one of the major national candidates — meaning everyone but Jim Gilmore, who got 12 votes in Iowa — to be left out. Candidates needed the following to be invited, according to ABC, the network hosting the debate: A first, second or third finish in the Iowa caucuses, be "among the top six in an average of national polls," or be "among the top six in an average of New Hampshire polls."
Those on the stage will no doubt be fighting for the voters who have not declared a party preference because they can vote in either the Democratic or Republican primary. According to the CNN poll's Feb. 2-Feb. 4 responses, 46 percent said they would vote in the Republican primary while 44 percent said the Democratic. Ten percent said they have not yet decided.
The debate will air on ABC at 5 p.m. PST, and it will be co-moderated by David Muir and Martha Raddatz.