There will be fewer viewers. There will be fewer laughs and “did he just say that out loud?” moments, but tonight’s debate matters. It’s Marco Rubio’s last clear chance before the caucus itself to disrupt the narrative that the race is coming down to Donald Trump versus Ted Cruz.
Expect Cruz to come hard after Rubio. He no doubt sees the polls tightening and knows that falling behind Rubio or even barely beating him could do real damage in New Hampshire and South Carolina.
Expect Jeb, Christie, and perhaps Kasich to attack Rubio as well. They know that if he emerges from Iowa as a strong Trump-alternative then their New Hampshire-focused strategy is in ruins.
Trump’s fans will likely tune out tonight, but those who are seeking alternatives will still watch. If Rubio can take on all comers and emerge either unscathed or with a handful of outstanding moments to share with potential supporters, his surge may well continue. If not? Then it’s Trump v. Cruz — in Iowa and beyond.