With New Hampshire voters set to cast ballots Tuesday in the nation’s first primary, each debate thrust and parry will be crucial.

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CONCORD, N.H. — Donald Trump returns to the Republican presidential debate stage Saturday night facing a tough challenge. Sen. Marco Rubio arrives as a sudden star, basking in the establishment’s embrace but fending off attacks from his rivals.

Sen. Ted Cruz, still glowing from his Iowa victory, is laboring to further consolidate conservative support, while Ben Carson is struggling to avoid being typecast as the dead man walking — or, in this case, talking.

Three more are clumped together in the second tier. Without a breakout moment at the ABC News debate to propel a surge in Tuesday’s New Hampshire primary, the candidacies of Jeb Bush, Chris Christie and John Kasich could end.


Time: 5 p.m. Pacific Time

Location: St. Anselm College, Goffstown, N.H.

Channel: ABC (4)

Moderators: “World News Tonight” anchor David Muir and Martha Raddatz, co-anchor of “This Week with George Stephanopoulos”

With New Hampshire voters set to cast ballots Tuesday in the nation’s first primary, a week after the Iowa caucuses, each debate thrust and parry will be crucial.

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Beneath a blanket of snow that fell Friday, the Republican candidates burrowed in to prepare for their most urgent debate yet, one that will influence New Hampshire’s famously late-to-decide voters and help determine the finalists in the battle for the nomination.

“People are voting, so there will be more desperation by everybody,” Christie, the New Jersey governor, said in an interview. “New Hampshire folks are going to be watching and deciding, and I will put on a good show for them.”

The debate, also sponsored by WMUR-TV and the Independent Journal Review, will put an exclamation point on two exhaustive weeks of campaigning and comes at a time candidates such as Christie are clawing to hang on.

Since Monday’s Iowa caucuses, state polls in New Hampshire have shown Trump maintaining a solid lead but Rubio and Cruz rising into contention, with Kasich, the Ohio governor, and Bush close behind and Christie and Carson trailing. The seventh major candidate, former technology executive Carly Fiorina, did not qualify for the debate because she is too far back in the polls; she has protested her exclusion to the Republican National Committee.

One-third of likely Republican New Hampshire voters said they could change their minds before Tuesday, according to a Suffolk University-Boston Globe poll released Friday, which had Trump leading at 29 percent followed by Rubio at 19 percent and Kasich at 13 percent.

The establishment hopefuls who looked past their poor results in Iowa see New Hampshire as the first — and perhaps last — meaningful test of their appeal.

Bush, the former Florida governor who was an early favorite but languished through fall and winter, is on a crucial mission to stage a comeback. He pleaded this week with New Hampshire voters to rally behind him, whispering “please clap” after delivering a speech about leadership, a phrase that has since gone viral on social media.

He has been joined by his mother, Barbara Bush, who shuffled through the snow behind her walker Friday as she went to a diner to shake hands, pose for pictures and order voters to get to the polls for her son. “I haven’t seen the snow for 1,000 years,” the 90-year-old former first lady said upon entering Mary Ann’s Diner in Derry.

For Bush, Christie and Kasich, it is imperative to slow or stop Rubio, who had a strong third-place finish in Iowa. Bush has suggested Rubio and Cruz, while personally ambitious and gifted, lack the experience and leadership qualities to be president, a refrain he is likely to carry into the debate.

“What in their background would suggest that they can make a tough decision, that they’d run to the fire to put it out, that they’d figure out a way to solve problems because they’ve been confronted with challenges in their life?” Bush asked Thursday night in Derry.

Christie has been more scathing in his critique of Rubio. All week, he called Rubio “the boy in the bubble.” In the interview, Christie described the Florida senator as weak and callow.

Rubio, 44, has sought to shrug off the attacks as he glided from diner stops to packed town-hall meetings delivering his message of generational change.

“I’m proud of my record in public service,” Rubio said Friday on NBC News, citing his years in the Senate and as Florida’s state House speaker. “People running say all kinds of things … At the end of the day this election is about the future, about what happens next for America.”

Cruz and Carson’s candidacies hinge less on the outcome in New Hampshire. They are playing more to a national conservative audience, looking ahead to the South Carolina primary and beyond.

By taking on Trump, Cruz, of Texas, looks to solidify his status as the darling of the hard right, while Carson, a retired neurosurgeon, is striving for relevance after shedding about 50 staffers this week.

Typically a low-key presence, Carson has grown angry about Cruz’s Iowa campaign, which Carson accused of playing “dirty tricks” for claiming before the caucuses that he was suspending his campaign. Cruz has since apologized, but Carson does not plan to back off at the debate.

“He is still concerned about the culture of that campaign,” Carson adviser Deana Bass said Friday. “It’s not a talking point. It’s how this man truly feels.”

For Trump, who skipped last week’s Iowa debate because of a feud with Fox News, much is on the line.

“The man who has led it all for six months is in the most vulnerable position among the big three,” said former George W. Bush press secretary Ari Fleischer. “If having lost Iowa he also loses New Hampshire, it’s going to diminish him.”

Trump’s past debate performances have been uneven, but if he does poorly tonight, he will have little time to recover before voters render their verdict.

Taking to Twitter on Friday, Trump promised an “incredible evening … So many things to say, so much at stake.”

On the stump this week, Trump has slightly recalibrated his pitch, reviving his core themes of border enforcement and trade and taking fewer shots at others. But signaling a line of attack the candidate may pursue Saturday, Trump adviser Stephen Miller excoriated Rubio’s immigration position in an interview with Breitbart News on Friday, calling him a “frontman for the open-borders syndicate.”

One candidate who plans to avoid clashes is Kasich, who says he is campaigning from the “sunny side of the street.”

In an interview this week Kasich said he thinks he can build support if he avoids a fight. “People keep thinking you’ve got to throw some Hail Mary pass to shake things up, but I don’t buy that,” he said.