Politics & Policy

Seven Storylines to Watch at Tonight’s GOP Debate

Carson and Trump at the second GOP debate. (Justin Sullivan/Getty)

Fourteen candidates will gather at the University of Colorado in Boulder tonight for the third pair of Republican presidential debates, with fewer than 100 days remaining until the Iowa caucuses.

The candidates once again will be divided into heats by polling average, with four participating in CNBC’s undercard contest at 6 p.m. and the remaining ten taking the stage for the prime-time event at 8 p.m.

Here are seven storylines to watch:

1. Ben Carson the Frontrunner. Multiple polls show Carson pulling ahead of Donald Trump in Iowa, and a just-released New York Times/CBS News survey has him leading the field nationally. After playing a supporting role in the first two debates, the soft-spoken retired neurosurgeon is likely to be treated as a leading man on Wednesday. Expect Carson to field more questions from the moderators than in past debates, and to absorb more attacks from rival candidates — especially Trump. This will represent an abrupt change of circumstance for Carson, who disappeared from the stage for long stretches in Ohio and California and seemed content to stay out of the fray while other candidates shouted over one another and attempted to interject on questions asked of their opponents. Carson’s capacity for handling the sudden flash of scrutiny — from the moderators, his opponents, and viewers at home — will go a long way toward determining the sustainability of his surge in recent polls.

RELATED: Why Ben Carson Can Win

2. Donald Trump the Mere Mortal. Carson’s rise inevitably draws attention to the fact that for the first time, Trump won’t take the stage Wednesday night claiming a universal lead in every poll of every state — a change that CNBC’s moderators are certain to point out. Make no mistake: Trump still leads the horse race in several states, has strong national numbers, and has not suffered any dramatic downsizing in support. But Carson’s overtaking him in Iowa has already forced Trump into a panic mode of sorts — see his attack on Carson’s faith last Saturday — and it’s fair to expect an escalation of that dynamic on national television. This is the moment that Republicans have waited for: Once his aura of invincibility is shattered, how will Trump respond?

RELATED: Trump’s Early Campaign Success Is a Wake-Up Call

3. It’s the Economy, Stupid. After the most recent debate in California was panned for ignoring pocketbook issues — despite its marathon, three-hour duration — the economy will be front-and-center in Colorado. CNBC has dubbed the debate, “Your Money, Your Vote,” and the fiscal-wonk moderators will be charged with leading a conversation on topics such as taxes, entitlements, regulations, health-care spending, and the debt ceiling. This should mean fewer fireworks and more studious policy discussions — a terrain better suited to the talents of a Jeb Bush than those of a Donald Trump or Ben Carson. And yet . . . 

RELATED: Are the Debates Working?

4. Restoring the Exclamation Point. Bush’s campaign has taken a fair amount of ribbing for the disconnect between the excitement connoted by its logo (“Jeb!”) and the candidate’s own apparent misery. The former governor will take the stage Wednesday shadowed by his recent remarks in South Carolina, in which he sourly denounced the negativity of the race and claimed he has “cooler things to do” than brawl for the GOP nomination. Bush’s bluntness drew headlines, but the feeling it conveyed wasn’t new or terribly surprising. He has frequently come across as moody — if not downright despondent — on the campaign trail, and does nothing to embody the “joyful” campaign he constantly talks about running. Tonight’s debate, framed by the kind of policy nuance he built his reputation upon, offers Bush a critical opportunity to reset the narrative by speaking with passion — and, yes, energy — about issues in his wheelhouse. If Bush doesn’t deliver a breakout performance in this setting, with this subject matter, it’s fair to wonder whether he ever will.

RELATED: Jeb Bush Is Toast

#share#5. Curtain Call for Carly. The consensus star of last month’s debate in California, Carly Fiorina saw a spike in polling and then parlayed those successes into impressive fund-raising numbers — only to promptly see her support plummet in those same polls a few weeks later. Fiorina now finds herself back where she was heading into that September 16 event: mired in the middle of the pack, hoping for a breakout performance to boost her numbers. It’s certainly not improbable: The former Hewlett-Packard CEO has proven a highly effective debater, and she’ll be in her element discussing economic issues. But her previous performance elevated expectations, and failure to meet them in Colorado — after catching lightning in a bottle once and squandering it — would give credence to the narrative of her campaign’s downward trajectory.

RELATED: Carly Fiorina as Secretariat

#related#6. Rand Out of Time. The Kentucky senator was done an enormous favor by CNBC, which set the polling threshold at 3 percent — 2.5, actually, since they agreed to round up — for the primetime event in Boulder. This defied the wishes of some Republican officials who had been advocating for a higher entry bar, perhaps 4 or 5 percent, in order to shrink the main stage. Paul, who appeared in danger of missing the cut, just barely managed to qualify by registering an average of 3 percent in recent recognized polls. But his luck could soon run out: Party officials say every successive debate should have a rising threshold for participation, beginning with Fox Business’s contest in Milwaukee November 10. If the cutoff moves up even a percentage point or two, Paul could lose his spot on the main stage. This adds tremendous urgency to his mission in Colorado, and could prompt Paul to ratchet up his thus-far–unsuccessful attacks on the likes of Trump and Chris Christie.

7. Swan Song for the Second Tier? Speaking of shrinking the stage: GOP officials were fairly certain leaving California that there wouldn’t be another undercard debate after the four-person snooze-fest in Simi Valley. But CNBC, likely because of huge ratings it couldn’t turn down, agreed to yet another warm-up act. Republicans close to the debate process are confident it will be the last one, meaning Lindsey Graham, Rick Santorum, Bobby Jindal, and George Pataki may be looking at their last chance to sell themselves to a national audience. If any of them hope to make the cut in Milwaukee — and avoid being seen as dead men walking in the months ahead — they’ll need nothing short of a breathtaking performance in Colorado.

— Tim Alberta is chief political correspondent for National Review.

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