What’s Going to Happen at the Final Republican Debate Before Iowa

The final debate before the critical Iowa primary will be the last chance for the Republican candidates to make an impression. Thus far, the debates have been effectively weeding out weaker candidates, with several notable exceptions. Here’s what I believe will go down at the Fox Business Network debate.

According to various outlets, there may be as few as six candidates on the debate stage January 14. This would leave on the stage Donald Trump, Ted Cruz, Marco Rubio, Ben Carson, Jeb Bush, and Chris Christie.

Donald Trump:

Trump will likely continue his ongoing strategy, which has been to bloviate with masterful ambiguity, dole out insults to Jeb and Rand, and make incredulous faces. This strategy has worked for him thus far, and I don’t see him changing it up. His polls stay the same. There is the possibility that with the Iowa primary so close at hand, Trump will attack Ted Cruz, but I think he knows better than to make a risky move like that when others will do the beating for him. He knows every other candidate will be targeting the Iowa front-runner, and all he has to do is sit back and let it happen. Which brings me to…

Marco Rubio:

For Rubio, this debate is his last chance to defeat the current conservative king, by whom I mean Ted Cruz (Trump is no conservative). During their last sparring match on CNN, Rubio lost the debate on the NSA by a wide margin, and many believed the same of the immigration squabble. After the debate, Fox News’ Frank Luntz asked eight of his focus group participants who had switched candidates to tell him who their previous choice was, and to which candidate they switched. Out of the eight that switched candidates, five went to Cruz–two of whom had been Rubio supporters.

Though the beltway almost unanimously praised Rubio following the debate, he fell in the polls during the following days. According to RealClearPolitics, ten national polls conducted prior to the CNN debate had Rubio averaging 13%. His RCP average has since fallen to 11.5%. Rubio needs to get a win. To do this, he will double down on his previous attacks on Cruz–immigration and the NSA–and he’ll dig deeper. He’ll be more aggressive than ever before. Additionally, if he gets desperate enough, he may bring up the secretly recorded Manhattan fundraiser tape being used by Mike Huckabee to undermine Cruz’s personal credibility and integrity.

Ben Carson:

With the recent and sudden resignation of Carson’s campaign manager, deputy campaign manager, and communications director, as well as his his precipitous fall in the polls, Carson desperately needs a win. This is do or die for the Carson campaign. This means that we’ll likely see a more aggressive Ben Carson, similar to the one we saw when Politico smeared him, and we may see more polished and concise responses to questions relating to foreign policy. If he fails here, if he has a CNN debate redux, in which he’s ineffectual and off-kilter, his campaign will be over. He has amassed quite the war chest, but according to insiders, his cash burn-rate has been high, which signals a campaign out of control.

Chris Christie:

Christie will remain the same. He’ll continue to address the camera and talk about how he was a federal prosecutor. Christie knows he doesn’t have the evangelical vote, the Tea Party vote, or the libertarian vote, so he’s put all his chips on national security. Because of the recent attacks in Paris and San Bernardino, Christie has gained a bit of traction, and he’s hoping his appeal to the hawks in the Republican Party will pay off in New Hampshire. We’ll hear him talk about cutting through the insider BS, and we’ll be treated to his usual dose of Jersey attitude. I don’t expect Christie to be on the attack.

Jeb Bush:

Poor Jeb. I think he’s the only candidate who hasn’t caught on to the fact that attacking Trump doesn’t work. He’s truly “Teflon Don,” and the other candidates know this. Watching Jeb attack trump is like watching a toy poodle attack a pit bull. All you get is a bloody poodle. Regardless, expect Jeb to hammer Trump at every opportunity to little effect.

Ted Cruz:

This is the moment for Cruz; he must perform impeccably to maintain his momentum going into Iowa. All guns will be pointed at him–specifically Marco Rubio’s. Rick Santorum and Mike Huckabee have already hit Cruz with underhanded and deceptive attacks. Don’t expect this to stop. The moderators will target Cruz, and expect Rubio to come out swinging. Cruz, true to form, will likely only address other candidates if he’s asked about them directly. However, if another candidate makes a direct hit, Cruz will punch back ten times harder.

The other candidates, should they make the stage, are irrelevant at this point. This is a three-way fight among Cruz, Trump, and Rubio. Cruz has momentum and a tremendous ground game, Trump has his unwavering base, and Rubio has the backing of the entire establishment in Washington and on cable news.