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Republican Presidential Hopefuls Face Their Next Crucible at Saturday’s Debate

GOP 2016 DebateGOP 2016 Debate
A GOP debate in New HampshirePhotograph by David Goldman — AP

On Saturday evening, for the first time since the start of this freewheeling Republican primary, all the contenders will fit onto one debate stage simultaneously. For that, thank the first two contests, which culled the field to six candidates. Or five, if you don’t count Ben Carson, who will nevertheless be physically present for the showdown in Greenville, South Carolina, along with frontrunner Donal Trump, Texas Sen. Ted Cruz, former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush, Ohio Gov. John Kasich and Florida Sen. Marco Rubio. The Palmetto State primary next Saturday promises to further narrow the competition. Here are a few things we’ll be watching for during the debate, the last before the state votes.

Can Trump neutralize Cruz?

The night’s marquis matchup pits Cruz, the Iowa victor, against Trump, who just won his first-ever election, in New Hampshire. The last time these two clashed on a South Carolina debate stage — roughly a month ago — Trump demonstrated surprising agility by redirecting a Cruz jab at his “New York values” into a stirring recollection of the city’s resilience following the 9/11 attacks. But Trump is usually strongest on offense, as he demonstrated late this week by accusing the Cruz campaign of launching misleading robo-polls in South Carolina. Trump evidently believes he’s identified Cruz’s soft underbelly — that he’s untrustworthy — and will keep stabbing at it. Yet Cruz himself is a world-class debater. Look for him to continue his bid to frame Trump as an establishment-friendly opportunist only posing as a conservative.

How does Rubio handle the pressure?

The Florida senator’s spectacular flop in the last debate sapped the momentum he’d built heading out of Iowa and dropped him to a fifth-place finish in New Hampshire, where he’d aimed to come in second. Now the candidate who looked to be consolidating establishment support following the Iowa caucuses needs to scrap his way back. Rubio has raised the bar for himself by acknowledging his self-inflicted damage and pledging never to repeat it. And he changed strategy this week, launching unprompted attacks from the stump at his Republican rivals. New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, who savaged Rubio in the last debate, dropped out on Wednesday. But will Rubio manage to land punches on his remaining rivals without losing his balance?

Do the other two establishment contenders make a move?

The Bush family has a long history in the state, and George W. Bush is primed to hit the trail there on his brother’s behalf, a first in this cycle. Yet Jeb trails Rubio and probably needs to finish ahead of him to stay in the race. Kasich placed a strong second in New Hampshire but lags behind even Carson in South Carolina, where he’s lacked a presence. To varying degrees, both Bush and Kasich have tried to wage more positive campaigns, at least personally. The urgency of the circumstances could prompt one or both to reconsider.

The debate, hosted by CBS, is scheduled to start at 9 pm EST and run 90 minutes.