On Saturday evening, heavyweights Donald Trump and Ted Cruz will be throwing haymakers. The businessman and Texas senator, frontrunners for the Republican presidential nomination, have spent the days since Monday's Iowa caucuses circling each other in the playground, waiting for the first punch.
At the ABC News debate in Manchester, N.H. (the eighth Republican debate so far), the pair will come out swinging at the final debate before the primary. Pulled into conflict by the gravity of the political process, last year’s unconvincing truce morphed into a cold war in January with Cruz’s rising poll numbers.
Cruz’s surprise victory in Iowa, accompanied by some nasty accusations of voter fraud, has made conflict this weekend inevitable. Trump is irked that people working for the Cruz campaign erroneously told caucus-goers that retired neurosurgeon Ben Carson, God-fearing nectar to the state’s evangelicals, was exiting the race.
Carson was not, but Trump contends with some justification that enough voters may have been taken in by the ruse to skew the result. Cruz, for his part, apologised to Carson before accusing the 69-year-old reality TV star of throwing a “Trumpertantrum.”
“He’s losing it,” said Cruz said on TV, before suggesting that a President Trump might “nuke Denmark” in a fit of pique. Expect Cruz’s Canadian birth and Trump’s inability to offer a coherent policy position beyond building a brick partition with Mexico to feature heavily in the firestorm.
Yet Saturday’s rumble isn’t just a one-on-one. Florida Senator Marco Rubio’s third place showing in Iowa has given the GOP candidates beyond the Cruz-Trump axis a clear target. New Jersey Governor Chris Christie set the anti-Rubio tone this week, repeatedly calling him the “boy in the bubble.” The insinuation is that the Florida senator can't go beyond his stock speech and memorised debate answers. Bush, Rubio's former ally, has joined the attack.
Campaign wisdom suggests that only one candidate will emerge from the “outsider” feud of Cruz-Trump, leaving an opening for one “establishment” candidate to mount a challenge. Rubio currently has the momentum, meaning Christie, former Florida Governor Jeb Bush and Ohio Governor John Kasich will all be trying to bring him down. Carson no doubt will look on giggling.
Carly Fiorina, the former Hewlett-Packard chief and the only woman in the GOP lineup, did not make the debate cut, according to ABC News criteria. Unlike previous offerings, Saturday’s event will not have an undercard debate after Kentucky Senator Rand Paul, former Pennsylvania Senator Rick Santorum and former Arkansas Governor Mike Huckabee dropped out of the race this week.
The debate, which starts at 8pm EST/1am GMT, will be available via ABC News.