Rubio under pressure as Republicans debate in South Carolina

GREENVILLE, South Carolina (AP) — Florida Sen. Marco Rubio enters Saturday night's Republican presidential debate facing immense pressure to right his campaign after faltering badly in the last contest and finishing a disappointing fifth in the New Hampshire primary.

Rubio's stumble re-energized some of his rivals as the race heads to the South and reignited questions about whether the 44-year-old first-term senator has the experience to be president. While he's sought to shed some of his reliance on well-rehearsed talking points in recent days, the debate will be a prime test of whether he can rebound.

Just six candidates will face off Saturday in Greenville, South Carolina, far from the long line of candidates who took the stage in earlier Repubican debates. But even with a streamlined field, the Republican race remains deeply uncertain. In recent presidential races, the South Carolina primary has played a pivotal role in further winnowing the field.

Texas Sen. Ted Cruz and celebrity billionaire Donald Trump each have a state in their win column after respective victories in Iowa and New Hampshire, and both appear to be in a strong position heading into South Carolina's Feb. 20 Republican primary. They've been sparring from afar for weeks but have so far kept their acrimony off the debate stage.

Whether that pattern continues in Saturday's contest is unknown. Cruz released a television advertisement before the debate accusing the real estate mogul of a "pattern of sleaze," spurring Trump to fire back on Twitter with another round of questions about his Canadian-born rival's eligibility to be president.

If Cruz "doesn't clean up his act, stop cheating, & doing negative ads, I have standing to sue him for not being a natural born citizen," Trump wrote.

While Trump will be standing at center stage, signifying his lead in national preference polls, Rubio will be the center of attention.

Rubio headed into New Hampshire with a bit of momentum fresh from a stronger-than-expected third-place finish in the leadoff Iowa caucuses, and it looked like he would emerge as the more mainstream alternative to Cruz and Trump. The party establishment is concerned that the two front-runners both have high disapproval ratings and are too polarizing to do well in the general election.

But Florida's junior senator came into last weekend's debate facing criticism from rivals who said that while he delivers a good campaign speech and sharp answers in debates, he lacked depth. He played into that characterization when he repeated the same practiced line multiple times under pressure from New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie. Rubio won't have to face Christie in Saturday's debate because the New Jersey governor dropped out of the race after a disappointing sixth place finish in New Hampshire.

Rubio's poor performance in New Hampshire has created a potential opening for former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush and Ohio Gov. John Kasich to consolidate support among the party establishment and challenge Trump and Cruz. Bush in particular will need a solid showing in South Carolina, given his prominent political family's ties to the state, while Kasich is just hoping to remain viable until the race heads to friendly territory for the Midwestern governor.

Also on stage Saturday will be Ben Carson, the retired neurosurgeon who has struggled to stay relevant in the debates as his standing in the race sharply slipped. Carson pledged that he wouldn't allow himself to be ignored.

Katon Dawson, the former chairman of the South Carolina Republican Party, said he expects the debate to have more of an impact on his state's voters than the results in either Iowa or New Hampshire.

"In the last couple of races, we have seen our voters hold their final pick until a couple of days before," Dawson said. "After the church bells ring on Sunday, people are going to start paying a lot of attention."

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Pace reported from Washington.

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