Perhaps no other GOP debate this cycle has higher stakes than the New Hampshire debate on Saturday, sponsored by ABC News.
It is one of their last big chances for the candidates to make their case to New Hampshire voters, whose Tuesday vote will undoubtedly produce a shakeout of the still-large Republican field.
Donald Trump, who skipped the pre-Iowa debate and came in second in the state, still holds a sizable lead among Republicans in New Hampshire, but he’s facing a host of rivals who believe that he is vulnerable or his campaign lacks the organization to make those numbers hold up.
Marco Rubio, who beat expectations in Iowa and is ascending in some polls, already is a target of rivals Jeb Bush and Chris Christie.
John Kasich, meanwhile, has staked everything on New Hampshire, hoping to become the moderate-right alternative to Ted Cruz, Trump or even Rubio. “I ought to be running in a Democratic primary. I got more Democrats for me,” he quipped on Saturday.
Follow along below for live updates:
8:02 pm ET: Rupert’s words. Media mogul Rupert Murdoch weighed in on Twitter about what he thinks of Hillary Clinton’s prospects. “Do Obama’s really want Hillary to win?” he asked, a bit provocatively. At her debate with Bernie Sanders on Thursday, Clinton was asked about the speeches she gave to Goldman Sachs employees, for which was paid more than $600,000. Clinton said she would look into whether she would release transcripts of those speeches.
“Of course Hillary’s agent sought top dollar fees. Why lie? What she told Wall St. friends IS relevant and we will never be told,” Murdoch tweeted, trying to give a bit more fuel to the storyline.
8:16 pm ET: Missing the cue. OK, this is a comedy of errors. Ben Carson was called to the stage, then missed his cue. He just stood there. Then Trump appeared to be waiting for him to go out on stage. And then the moderators missed calling out John Kasich. Oh well, they are all on the stage now.
8:29 pm ET: What happened in Iowa? One of the first questions is about Cruz’s campaign tactics in Iowa. Trump has charged that Cruz “stole” the election, pointing to his campaign’s distribution of messages to caucus goers, just before voting was to begin, that Carson was dropping out of the race. In fact, Carson’s campaign merely released an announcement that he would be taking a break to Florida, not dropping out. Cruz apologizes, and blames it on CNN’s reporting. But Carson notes that CNN quickly clarified its report.
“I will not use this opportunity to savage the reputation of Sen. Cruz,” Carson says, before noting how ridiculous it would be for him to drop out of the caucuses just as voting was starting.
8:38 pm ET: Christie goes after Rubio. Christie slams Rubio, including Rubio’s attendance record in the Senate. “That is not leadership, that is truancy,” Christie says. Rubio tries to keep his focus on President Obama, but he can’t avoid a few shots at Christie in response.
“Chris your state got hit by a massive snowstorm two weeks ago, you didn’t even want to go back. You had to be shamed into going back,” Rubio responds.
Then it gets even more bitter. “The shame is that you would actually criticize someone for showing up for work … When you have never been responsible in your entire life,” Christie says.
Carson brought up Ronald Reagan’s “11th commandment” earlier in the evening. That was that Republicans shouldn’t attack fellow Republicans. So much for that this cycle.
8:46 pm ET: North Korea missile test. The candidates are asked about reports this evening that North Korea has tested an intercontinental ballistic missile — a breaking news development primed for query as a test of the candidates’ readiness on foreign affairs. Trump’s response is to first go into campaign rhetoric — “our country is going to hell” — but then he says that pressure has to be put on China to control the North Koreans. Rubio says Trump is right. “If a preemptive strike is needed to keep us safe, then we should do it,” Bush says.
8:55 pm ET: Christie vs. Rubio, II. An immigration question provides Christie with another chance to attack Rubio, who once co-sponsored legislation to provide a path to legalization status. But Rubio does not support that plan any longer.
“The question is, did he fight for his legislation. It is abundantly clear that he didn’t,” Christie says.
But Rubio said that “leadership is ultimately about solving the problem.” He said that the legislation was the approach that was tried” but didn’t have a chance of passage. “It has been discussed for 30 years and nothing happens,” he says.
9:07 pm ET: The Donald and single payer. Is Trump in alignment with Bernie Sanders in wanting single-payer healthcare? He says that he will replace Obamacare “with something so much better,” before slamming the program because insurance companies “are getting rich.” He doesn’t go into specifics on what he would offer, but he indicated that he would make a plan “where people compete so much better,” and praises health care savings plans. But he seems to suggest that other candidates are heartless in not recognizing the importance of getting people covered. “We are going to take care of people who are dying on the street,” he sayd.
9:14 pm ET: Eminent domain. Trump defends eminent domain as a necessity to build big public works projects and private infrastructure, giving Bush a chance to accuse him of attempting to use public domain to take an old woman’s home for a casino in Atlantic City. “To turn this into a limousine parking lot for casinos is not a public use,” Bush says. Trump says he didn’t take the property, but is rattled by Bush’s attack, at one point telling him to be “quiet.” That elicits boos from the crowd. “That is all his donors and special interests out there,” Trump says.
9:19 pm ET: Rubio on Obama. Rubio’s campaign clearly has a strategy in turning answers, whenever possible, to President Obama. “This is a president who is trying to change this country,” Rubio says, suggesting that it’s a transformation that must be stopped. He goes to this talking point even when asked to respond to attacks from Christie, who has three times hit Rubio with harsh criticism.
9:31 pm ET: Bombing ISIS. Many of the GOP candidates have bashed the Obama administration for not recognizing the threat of ISIS, but they stop short of committing U.S. ground troops. “ISIS is not just a Jihadist group. They’re an apocalyptic group,” he says. But given that threat, co-moderator Martha Raddatz presses Rubio on what he would do differently from what is being done now. Rubio says that while Sunni fighters have to be enlisted to retake ISIS territory, “the problem is they don’t trust this administration.” Trump says that the key is to take oil fields controlled by ISIS. Message: “You have got to knock the hell out of the oil.”
9:42 pm ET: Waterboarding. Cruz says that he does not consider waterboarding to meet “the gengeralized definition of torture,” but says that he would not put it into widespread use. Trump has no nuance. “I’d bring back a hell of a lot worse than waterboarding,” he says.
9:51 pm ET: Addiction. Cruz gets into a very personal moment when talking about drug addiction, talking about his late half-sister’s struggles. “This is an absolute epidemic. We need to solve it,” he says, and then ties it to the need to secure the border to prevent drug trafficking from Mexican drug cartels. One of the campaign season’s top viral videos was a Huffington Post spot of Christie talking about addiction. “This is a disease. It is not a moral failing. We need to get everyone the treatment that they need,” Christie says. Their answers on the need for treatment are similar to those of Clinton and Sanders.
10:05 pm ET: Excessive force. Trump defends the police when talking about law enforcement use of excessive force, which has helped spark the Black Lives Matter movement. “We have to give them more respect. They can’t act. They are afraid of losing their pension and their job, and they don’t know what to do,” he says. When asked what victims or families of police shooting victims should do, Trump says, “they sue. Everybody sues.”
Kasich says that he has set up a collaborative of community and law enforcement leaders to come up with a plan, calling it a “win-win.”
10:17 pm ET: Rubio, rinse, repeat. Someone has set up a Twitter account, @rubioglitch, with some variation on Rubio’s talking point this evening. “As I was saying, this notion Obama doesn’t know what he’s doing is pure fiction. He knows exactly what he is doing.”
10:25 pm ET: CNN strikes back. CNN put out a statement challenging Cruz’s assertion that his campaign relied on its reporting in spreading the message that Carson was dropping out of the race. The network called what Cruz said “categorically false.” “CNN never corrected its reporting because it never had anything to correct. The Cruz campaign’s actions the night of the Iowa caucuses had nothing to do with CNN’s reporting. The fact that Senator Cruz continues to knowingly mislead the voters about this is astonishing.”
10:35 pm ET: That’s it. This was a good night for the governors — Kasich, Bush and Christie probably benefited from the exposure, with fewer candidates on the stage, at the very time that they need it. Trump toned down his insults and stuck to his campaign slogans, but had to fend off a rather effective attack from Bush on his support for eminent domain. Cruz wasn’t as much of a factor as the last debate, a reflection of his weaker position in New Hampshire, but was at his best in talking about his half-sister and addiction. Rubio struggled to respond to Christie’s attacks, resorting too often to anti-Obama talking points (enough to provoke mocking on Twitter). Carson offered some levity for the evening, especially when he said, “I’m not here just to add beauty to the stage.”