Tonight’s Debate

Republican presidential candidate, businessman Donald Trump speaks as Republican presidential candidate, Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla., looks on during the Fox Business Network Republican presidential debate at the North ... Republican presidential candidate, businessman Donald Trump speaks as Republican presidential candidate, Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla., looks on during the Fox Business Network Republican presidential debate at the North Charleston Coliseum, Thursday, Jan. 14, 2016, in North Charleston, S.C. (AP Photo/Chuck Burton) MORE LESS
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We will of course be bringing you live coverage of tonight’s Republican primary debate in New Hampshire. You expect the hosting networks to say things like this and even the candidates. But I think there’s a good argument that this will be the most important debate of the GOP primary campaign.

There are many more primaries to go of course and many more debates. But a number of candidates are just barely hanging on. Really every candidate aside from Trump, Rubio and Cruz. Depending on how things pan out on Tuesday, even one of them could be kicked off the island.

It wasn’t just his underperformance Monday night that hurt Trump. An unexpected second knocked him personally off stride in a way or to a degree that I did not expect. He had the look of a bully who suddenly, finally gets socked in the nose and is stunned, half-scared and just generally bewildered. (The weird snowstorm flight fiasco, which kept him stuck in New York yesterday, just captured a certain haplessness and cluelessness, along with the never-ending entitlement of New Hampshire primary voters.) That surprised me because whatever you can say about Trump, it’s not like he hasn’t had very public reverses in his life. He now seems to have recovered some of his footing. And to my surprise (and covert relief) his poll numbers have stayed solid, even as there’s been a lot of ups and downs beneath him.

Like anyone who lives and dies on displays of dominance, Trump very much needs this debate to demonstrate what has pulled voters to his side over recent months – dominating his hapless opponents and pushing the envelope of acceptable political speech. I also expect he will return with a vengeance to his political meal ticket: immigrant bashing, especially since the rising star is Rubio whose bonafides on the issue are basically non-existent.

Everybody will be out to get Rubio because he’s the flavor of the moment and virtually everyone else needs him to lose for them to gain. It’s worth noting that we have not seen a GOP debate yet which is a beat-up-fest on Marco Rubio.

While I don’t expect everyone to drop out next week, Tuesday will likely reduce the field to three candidates – it will just take some of the losers longer than others to realize it. Tuesday won’t determine the race but it will likely constrain the possible outcomes, quite possibly in ways that will have a major impact on the general election outcome. So which three?

Baring a massive collapse Trump should at least be one of the three. Rubio should be too. But look at how bunched up the numbers are after those two. Kasich, Cruz and Jeb (yes, Jeb! – for once the exclamation point makes sense) are each bunched up just under or over 10 percent. Each of those could plausibly come in third. (Christie is a bit further back but not that much further.) One could conceivably come in second, if Rubio or Trump have a bad night.

Again, probably only three candidates will remain genuinely viable after Tuesday. But which three is critical – are the three stacked with electric, resentment candidates or does a viable general election candidate have a strong position? If you’re a Democrat, you really need to be hoping Rubio underperforms on Tuesday. Anything less than second place will do. If he can’t convert on his unexpectedly strong third place showing in Iowa, Iowa will look like a fluke. He’ll have the look of a loser who presents well on paper only. If Kasich or even Jeb is the big story, he’ll lose his claim to being the only plausible mainstream GOP candidate. On the other hand, if Rubio comes in a strong second, or even wins, I think he has a viable, though by no means assured, path to the nomination. Both Trump and Cruz have had rocky weeks, though Trump has a much better excuse. Both need to recoup their resentment politics credentials to maintain their position.

New Hampshire is a notoriously late-deciding state. With the numbers in this much flux and everybody but Trump bunched up relatively close, this final debate could have a big effect on the outcome.

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