Viewer’s guide: GOP candidates meet in New Hampshire for 8th debate

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Republican U.S. presidential candidates (L-R) U.S. Senator Rand Paul, Governor Chris Christie, Dr. Ben Carson, Senator Ted Cruz, Senator Marco Rubio, former Governor Jeb Bush and Governor John Kasich pose together onstage at the start of the debate held by Fox News for the top 2016 U.S. Republican presidential candidates in Des Moines, Iowa January 28, 2016. REUTERS/Jim Young - RTX24HL4

Republican U.S. presidential candidates (L-R) U.S. Senator Rand Paul, Governor Chris Christie, Dr. Ben Carson, Senator Ted Cruz, Senator Marco Rubio, former Governor Jeb Bush and Governor John Kasich pose together onstage at the start of the debate held by Fox News for the top 2016 U.S. Republican presidential candidates in Des Moines, Iowa January 28, 2016. Photo by Jim Young/Reuters.

With one presidential election contest over and the next three days away, there was a new sense of urgency for the Republican candidates ahead of Saturday night’s final debate before New Hampshire voters have their say.

Seven candidates were set to meet at Saint Anselm College in Manchester; some won’t be viable after Tuesday’s primary.

For those on the edge of relevancy, including New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie and former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush, the debate offered a last and best chance to rescue their White House ambitions.

The stakes were high, too, for Donald Trump. The billionaire businessman finished second in Iowa’s caucuses last Monday, and looked to reclaim his role as his party’s undisputed front-runner.

Sens. Ted Cruz of Texas and Marco Rubio of Florida hope their strong performances in Iowa will quickly turn the 2016 race contest into a three-man race.

Some things to watch for in the debate, airing on ABC:

PAGING MR. TRUMP

Trump makes his first appearance on the debate stage since skipping the last meeting over a dispute with Fox News.

He will resume his place at center stage as the leader in most recent polls, but his rivals sense weakness. Just ask Iowa winner Ted Cruz, who said this week that his two little girls were better behaved than Trump, who was “losing it.”

Trump remains the ultimate wild card in any high-stakes political event. But he can’t afford a major mistake just 60 hours before New Hampshire polls open.

If he loses this lead, things could quickly spiral out of control for the man who bills himself as the ultimate winner.

CRUZIN’ FOR FIREWORKS

Cruz stormed into New Hampshire as the big winner in Iowa, but it’s unclear if that success will translate in a state with a more moderate electorate.

The fiery conservative has drawn large crowds around the state in recent days. Yet he’s not backing off a message focused on religious conservative values, which typically don’t play well in New England.

Cruz hopes a strong debate performance will help prevent him from becoming yet another Iowa winner who quickly faded into irrelevancy. The former college debate champion has proven to be a major player in previous debates.

And based on the intensifying war of words with Trump, it’s hard to imagine anything short of fireworks between the two leading candidates. Cruz hopes to appear presidential, yet strong enough to take on The Donald and win.

RUBIO AND THE MAINSTREAM MUDDLE

Rubio has long planned to become the leading mainstream Republican alternative to Trump and Cruz.

With a strong performance Saturday night, he would take one step closer to consolidating that wing of his party and becoming a true force in the 2016 contest. But any major misstep could embolden one of his many mainstream rivals, who are desperate to score points with their own presidential aspirations on the line.

Rubio dominated his mainstream rivals in Iowa. He finished with more than triple the combined vote totals of Bush, Christie and Ohio Gov. John Kasich.

A repeat performance in New Hampshire would make Rubio the overwhelming favorite of establishment Republicans – and spell a quick end for the others.

Bush and Christie have ratcheted up attacks against Rubio, questioning his position on abortion and immigration, among other issues likely to emerge Saturday night.

JEB’S LAST STAND

Saturday could mark Bush’s final debate – or the beginning of an unlikely resurgence.

He has struggled to connect with voters out of the gate, even though last year’s $100 million fundraising haul has allowed him to stay viable.

He embarrassed himself in Iowa, finishing with less than 3 percent of the vote despite the backing of a super PAC that spent more than any other entity on local advertising.

Polls suggest Bush is running much stronger here. But a subpar debate performance could make it all but impossible for him to come back.

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