UPDATE (Matt): You can watch the fireworks here:
MANCHESTER, NEW HAMPSHIRE -- Ted Cruz has a small delegate lead and a big win under his belt. Marco Rubio is riding major momentum, both in New Hampshire and nationally. Donald Trump owns a double-digit polling lead in this first-in-the-nation primary. The three remaining governors all need big results on Tuesday, or risk suffering a fatal blow to their campaigns. And two other Republican hopefuls may be on the brink of ending their candidacies. The stage is set for tonight's high-stakes GOP debate on the campus of Saint Anselm College, where the remaining field of eight candidates has been (controversially) whittled down to seven, following Carly Fiorina's exclusion under ABC News' participation threshold formula. Three storylines to keep an eye on:
(1) Get Rubio. On the heels of an unexpectedly strong finish in Iowa and a flurry of endorsements, the Florida Senator is surging. His campaign has been framing the nominating contest as a three-man race among Rubio, Trump and Cruz -- a narrative that several other candidates are heavily invested in exploding. Jeb Bush and Chris Christie have been hammering Rubio as inexperienced, unaccomplished, and too conservative to win, with reports circulating that the two governors' aides have informally colluded to bring down the younger Senator. For what it's worth, Ohio Governor John Kasich has effectively lived in this state for weeks, has largely eschewed attacks, and has been polling well. He's openly conceded that a swing-and-miss here on Tuesday will doom his candidacy. Ted Cruz also senses Rubio coming on strong, and will be eager to cement himself as the most conservative man in the race. Rubio has earned the spotlight, which is a blessing and a curse. He'll be the target of intense criticism tonight, under the brightest of lights: A primetime debate on a national broadcast network in the thick of a high-interest primary battle. Team Rubio knows this is coming. But when the red light flips on, will he be ready?
(2) "Fraud" and Trump's temperament. Billionaire Donald Trump, the heavy frontrunner in New Hampshire according to the polls, has been all over the map over recent days. Literally. He's spent surprisingly little time in the Granite State, evidently betting that his polling cushion and the state's more primary voting system (which, to his advantage, includes independent voters) will carry the day on Tuesday. He's also swung wildly from accepting his Iowa loss graciously, to accusing Ted Cruz of "stealing" the election through "fraud," to shrugging off that incendiary allegation, to reiterating it:
Trump claims he's over Iowa.... but he's still talking about it. Says, "I dont think I did come in second. I think I came in first, OK."— Jill Colvin (@colvinj) February 6, 2016
The Texas Senator has argued that this turbulent sore-loser "Trumper tantrum" underscores Trump's erratic behavior, directly suggesting that he's too unstable to be trusted with the presidency. So who will show up tonight? The Donald Trump who was furiously demanding a re-do in Iowa and branding Cruz a "total liar," or the Donald Trump who's putting the Hawkeye State in the rearview mirror and hailing Cruz as a possible running mate? Expect questions based on both Trump's cries of "fraud," and Cruz's "nuke Denmark" retort -- probably right out of the gate.
(3) Nearing the end of the line for Carson and Carly? Given the flare-up over the false rumors over Carson's next moves after Iowa (which I've concluded basically amounted to the Cruz campaign ruthlessly and perhaps underhandedly exploiting an odd decision by Team Carson, but that didn't significantly impact the outcome), it may be risky to raise the specter of Carson leaving the race. Then again, his campaign has undergone significant layoffs, with more to come after New Hampshire, we're told. Hmm. And though I understand and mostly share Team Fiorina's frustration over Carly being the only candidate left off the debate stage this evening, her strong debating skills have not translated into growing support for whatever reason. A poor showing on what should theoretically be favorable terrain for her may push her out of the race.
Finally, on a more personal note, our Townhall Media colleague Mary Katharine Ham -- my close friend and co-author -- will serve as tonight's conservative moderator. I know firsthand how diligently and thoughtfully she's honed and refined her questions (I'm sworn to secrecy) and cannot wait to see her in action. We'll see you post-debate for instant analysis. In the meantime, follow our team's live tweets throughout the debate, and feel free to add your running thoughts in the comments section And away we go...