A view of the stage for the CNN Republican presidential debate at The Venetian Las Vegas on Dec. 15, 2015 in Las Vegas, Nev.
Photo by Justin Sullivan/Getty

What to watch for in Saturday’s New Hampshire GOP debate

Updated

The ABC News Republican debate in New Hampshire on Saturday has the potential to be a pivotal moment in the race. With the Iowa caucus in the books, top-three finishers Sen. Ted Cruz, Donald Trump and Sen. Marco Rubio are the clear front-runners, and the remaining candidates could easily bow out of the race next week if they can’t revive their campaigns in the Granite State. Here’s what to expect from the final debate before the Feb. 9 primary.

RELATED: Poll says Marco Rubio is rising after Iowa

The return of Trump

Guess who’s back / Back again / Trump is back / Tell a friend

After skipping the last Fox News debate over his ongoing displeasure with all things Megyn Kelly, Trump is showing up in New Hampshire and has said he’ll participate in an upcoming Fox debate despite Kelly’s participation as co-moderator. Trump has said since his loss in Iowa that his non-participation may have cost him votes.

There will be plenty to talk about. After a surprisingly gracious concession speech in Iowa, Trump returned to form the next day and demanded a re-vote after accusing Cruz of stealing the election. The dispute was related to allegations by Dr. Ben Carson’s campaign that Cruz engaged in “dirty tricks” by telling supporters to spread a news report that Carson was returning home to Florida after the caucus – a move some observers interpreted as implying he would drop out. Cruz has apologized for the incident.

The Texas senator hit back hard at Trump, calling his rival’s outburst a “Trumpertantrum” and warning it was a sign of a dangerous temperament. “I mean, we’re liable to wake up one morning and Donald, if he were president, would have nuked Denmark,” Cruz told reporters on Wednesday.

New Hampshire is a much better state for Trump than Iowa, and he’s led all polls by comfortable margins for months, but that also raises expectations. Trump can’t sit back and be the confident front-runner this time. He needs to perform well this week or risk falling apart. 

Photos from the Iowa campaign trail
As Iowans prepare to cast the first votes of the 2016 presidential election, Democrat and Republican candidates have been blanketing the state.

Four men enter, one man leaves

New Hampshire marks the ultimate showdown between four candidates trying to consolidate so-called “establishment” support in order to take on relative outsiders Cruz and Trump.

Rubio’s campaign is the favorite to do so after coming in a close third in Iowa behind Trump, but he needs to knock out three governors who have proven competitive in New Hampshire polling: New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, Ohio Gov. John Kasich and former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush.

The state executives are well aware they need to stop Rubio this week or never. Christie and Bush have relentlessly gone after Rubio this week over his inexperience. Both released ads on Friday highlighting a cringe-worthy interview in which Rick Santorum, who dropped out and endorsed Rubio after Iowa, couldn’t name a single accomplishment from the senator. Christie taunted him as the “boy in the bubble” on MSNBC this week, while Bush has questioned whether Rubio has “done anything in his life to prove can make a tough decision.”

With the fate of all four campaigns on the line Saturday, don’t be surprised if sparks fly early and often.

Ted Cruz, target

Cruz is riding high after Iowa but faces a tougher challenge in more socially moderate New Hampshire. While not writing off the state, he’s mostly looking past it to South Carolina and a slew of upcoming Southern contests where his strength with evangelical voters offers an easier route to victory.

RELATED: The intense GOP contest to be ‘not insane’ in New Hampshire

That said, he faces a tough spot in the debate because he’s competing with Trump for populist voters and with Rubio for more traditional conservatives. That makes him a big target for both, each of whom have criticized him for the last several weeks over different issues.

Trump has argued Cruz may be ineligible to serve as president because he was born in Canada and called him an “anchor baby” while hitting Cruz over his family and financial ties to banking giant Goldman Sachs. Rubio has tried to undermine Cruz’s reputation for consistency and confronted him with a variety of alleged flip-flops at the last two debates on immigration, trade and national security. No one will be surprised if both repeat the same critiques on Saturday.

Cruz has sounded as confident as ever on trail lately, especially in responding to Trump. He’ll need everything he’s got to fend off two front-runners at once while getting his own core message out at the same time. 

An earlier version of this article listed an incorrect sponsor for the New Hampshire debate.

Decision 2016 @ NBC News, Donald Trump, Jeb Bush, Marco Rubio and Ted Cruz

What to watch for in Saturday’s New Hampshire GOP debate

Updated