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GOP Debate Preview


We're going to start once again with political news tonight. ABC will host the final Republican debate before Tuesday's primary in New Hampshire. That is, of course, the nation's first presidential primary. Seven candidates will appear on stage together for the single debate, although Carly Fiorina did not meet the criteria set by the network and will not be there. Joining us from Manchester, N.H., to talk about what to expect is NPR national political correspondent Mara Liasson. Mara, hi, thanks for joining us.

MARA LIASSON, BYLINE: Happy to be here.

MARTIN: So the field is narrowing. Some of the early contenders have exited. Give us the lay of the land now that Iowa is behind us.

LIASSON: Well, the race has changed since Iowa because Marco Rubio is surging. Now he's in second place, behind Donald Trump, who has slipped a bit in the polls. So it's possible that tonight at the debate that Trump-Cruz feud that sucked all the oxygen out of the room in Iowa gets redirected. I still think I'm watching to see if Cruz repeats his dis of Trump's temperament when he said he has Trumper tantrums.

MARTIN: Trumper tantrums, yes. So Marco Rubio is second in New Hampshire, and Ohio Gov. John Kasich is challenging Cruz for third. So what does that foretell?

LIASSON: Well, I think it means that Marco Rubio has a huge target on his back because now everyone has a reason to go after him - Trump because Rubio is nipping on his heels, Cruz because he's looking forward or hoping that the race narrows to a Cruz versus Rubio battle in the South. And above all, the three governors - John Kasich, Chris Christie and Jeb Bush - are making their last stand in New Hampshire. And they have to get past Marco Rubio if they're going to have viability going forward. You know, Rubio has tangled with Cruz on immigration and foreign policy before, but he hasn't yet faced the kind of concerted barrage of attacks on his experience, his lack of accomplishments, his apostasy on immigration all in one night from all directions. And up until now, his campaign has worn the attacks like a badge of honor. They say it shows he's the strongest candidates, the other ones are desperate. But we haven't yet seen him have to fight off so much incoming as we expect him to get tonight.

MARTIN: Well, what about Dr. Ben Carson - doesn't seem as though he's been as visible in New Hampshire as he was in Iowa.

LIASSON: Well, he hasn't but he is hopping mad that Ted Cruz, whose campaign passed on erroneous reports and suggested to voters that Carson was dropping out. And Carson would like Cruz to apologize, but Cruz hasn't done it.

MARTIN: Let's talk about the Democrats for a couple minutes here. The Democrats had their debate on Thursday night. What about this weekend?

LIASSON: Well, they have some pretty interesting counterprogramming going on. Hillary Clinton is going to Flint, Mich., tomorrow. She'll meet with the mayor and community activists there. She is looking past New Hampshire to South Carolina, where the Flint lead poisoning story is a huge issue in the African-American community. And Bernie Sanders is heading to New York City for a widely-reported guest appearance on "Saturday Night Live," which is being hosted by Bernie Sanders' doppelganger, Larry David. The Sanders campaign hasn't confirmed this, but they did point out helpfully that Larry David is often mistaken for Bernie Sanders and vice-versa.

MARTIN: I can see that. Before we let you go, Mara, you know, we heard a lot about certain issues and certain interests that made a difference in Iowa. Are there issues that are framing the debate in New Hampshire?

LIASSON: Well, some of the issues are the same - immigration and ISIS on the Republican side, income inequality, Wall Street regulation, campaign-finance reform on the Democratic side. But in New Hampshire, both sides have been talking about opioid abuse, which is a very serious problem here. But I would say on the whole, this hasn't really been an issue-driven campaign. It's been about character and strength and persona and electability - who's the real conservative on the Republican side and who's the real progressive on the Democratic side.

MARTIN: That's NPR's national political correspondent Mara Liasson in Manchester, N.H. Mara, stay warm.

LIASSON: I will. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Michel Martin is the weekend host of All Things Considered, where she draws on her deep reporting and interviewing experience to dig in to the week's news. Outside the studio, she has also hosted "Michel Martin: Going There," an ambitious live event series in collaboration with Member Stations.
Mara Liasson is a national political correspondent for NPR. Her reports can be heard regularly on NPR's award-winning newsmagazine programs Morning Edition and All Things Considered. Liasson provides extensive coverage of politics and policy from Washington, DC — focusing on the White House and Congress — and also reports on political trends beyond the Beltway.