(CNN) — Marco Rubio might need a flak jacket in New Hampshire on Saturday night.
The Florida senator’s polling surge puts him in the firing line as his Republican rivals battle for survival in the final GOP debate ahead of the Granite State’s primary on Tuesday that could end some of their White House dreams.
An acrimonious evening looms with resentment boiling among Rubio’s establishment foes over his late run to third in last week’s Iowa caucuses and his success in separating himself from the chasing pack to sit second to Donald Trump in New Hampshire polling.
But it’s not just about Rubio. A series of intriguing sub-plots will also play out in the ABC debate.
Trump is back on stage after boycotting the last GOP debate over a dispute with Fox News. Ted Cruz, meanwhile, hopes to build on his win in the Iowa caucuses and the debate could be a last stand for candidates like Jeb Bush, John Kasich and Chris Christie.
The latest CNN/WMUR tracking poll of likely Republican primary voters published Friday found Trump dominating the race with a fierce battle for second unfolding between Rubio at 17%, and Cruz and Kasich, who are tied for third place with 13%. The three, however, are within the poll’s margin of error of 5.8 percentage points.
Bush and Christie, meanwhile, are trailing in the low single digits.
Christie, Kasich and Bush know there may be a spot for only one of them as the race leaves New Hampshire on Tuesday night, so time is running out.
Christie, who has camped out in New Hampshire for months, has taken Rubio’s rise especially personally and is threatening to aim his brawling New Jersey-style politics on the first term senator on Saturday night. This week he’s blasted Rubio as the “King of England” who was too scripted, let staff shield him from questions , had no proven record and would be better suited to a student council election than running for president.
“Let’s get the boy in the bubble out of the bubble … I’m ready to play. I hope he is because I’ll be ready to see him on Saturday night,” Christie told reporters earlier this week.
Another candidate chafing at Rubio’s rise is Bush, who’s seen his own once front-running campaign overtaken by his one-time protege. Bush on Friday condemned Cruz and Rubio with faint praise.
“They can really turn a phrase … think about it when you’re watching the debate, think about which one has proven they have the ability to get things done,” he said Friday.
One candidate not taking part on Saturday night is Carly Fiorina. The former businesswoman did not satisfy polling criteria set by ABC News and says the game was rigged against her because she beat Christie and Kasich in Iowa, and they will be on the stage and she won’t.
Retired neurosurgeon Ben Carson may meanwhile try to shore up his fading campaign by confronting Cruz over what he says were dirty tricks in Iowa that contributed to his poor showing.
CNN’s Manu Raju, Ashley Killough, Jeremy Diamond and Cassie Spodak contributed to this report
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