The GOP presidential hopefuls will descend on Milwaukee tonight for a fourth pair of debates, this time hosted by Fox Business. Just two weeks have passed since the candidates last debated in Boulder, Colo., a short turnaround that has left little time for any candidate to alter the narratives that emerged from that face-off. But with a new front-runner, a new lineup of candidates, and a new level of scrutiny on the host network, Tuesday’s debate promises plenty of excitement. Here are five storylines to watch as the night unfolds:
1. The New Jeb
Jeb Bush’s new slogan is “Jeb Can Fix It.” And there is a lot he needs to fix when he takes the debate stage tonight. Bush cannot sustain another face plant like the one he had in Boulder two weeks ago, when he took an ill-advised swing at Marco Rubio and wound up with a black eye. The bar is not high; after two mediocre debates and one abysmal one, no one is under any illusions that Bush will suddenly become a champion debater in Milwaukee. But he does need to show that he can turn in a competent performance that avoids serious errors. If he can do so, it will be an important indication to his supporters that he has the ability to adapt his campaign to a race that, at every turn, has gone differently than he anticipated.
2. The New Undercard
Chris Christie and Mike Huckabee will make their debuts on the undercard stage tonight, after failing to reach the polling threshold that would have kept them on the main stage. Christie has had strong performances at every past debate, and the demotion threatens to arrest the momentum he is finally beginning to build. But it could also be an opportunity. Since Carly Fiorina’s breakout performance on the first undercard, no other candidate has successfully used a second-tier debate as a springboard to the main stage. If Christie can put on a dominant performance, standing out as the adult at the kid’s table, he could hasten his return to the main stage, and earn himself a second look from undecided voters.
3. The New Moderators
CNBC’s moderators emerged as the villains of the Boulder debate, drawing criticism from conservatives even before the evening had ended. And other networks are now on notice: In response to the outcry, the RNC suspended a February 26 debate planned for CNBC’s broadcast sister, NBC. Fox Business, the host of Tuesday’s debate, has promised a night with questions more tightly focused on the topic at hand: the economy. “CNBC never asked the real questions, never covered the real issues,” says the narrator in a promo for the Fox Business debate that began airing the day after Boulder. But even if Fox Business’s moderators stick to the script, the candidates might not play along: Attacks on the media earned the biggest applause lines in Boulder, and there’s no reason to suspect that at least some contenders won’t go back to that well in Milwaukee.
4. The New Favorites
Conventional wisdom has always said that Marco Rubio and Ted Cruz ought to be leading their respective lanes in the GOP field, but up until recently, both sat solidly in the middle of the pack. Then, they each turned in a breakout performance at the Boulder debate. Cruz finally seemed to relax and abandon his script, showing some personality and some verve as he dived into arguments not so much with the other candidates but with the moderators. Rubio delivered the moment of the debate, dressing down Bush so thoroughly that the former governor hardly spoke the rest of the night. The two Cuban Americans may be the most skilled communicators in the field, and they face sky-high expectations entering tonight. They each need a strong performance to confirm that they’re the serious contenders they appear to be.
5. The New Front-runner
Ben Carson got his first taste of the intense scrutiny that comes with the front-runner title last week, when some aspects of his compelling life story were called into question. After a week of news items raising doubts about the details of his biography, he will no doubt have to contend with questions or comments on the subject — if not from the moderators, then from other candidates. Carson has so far delivered sleepy debate performances, displaying an affect that is, in fact, part of his personal narrative: Having overcome a violent temper when he was younger, he does not raise his voice. But Carson has made clear he does not like this new line of questioning one bit, and at a press conference Friday defending his biography, he showed flashes of something approximating anger, a rarity for a candidate who generally exhibits a preternatural calm. If the feistier Ben Carson shows up in Milwaukee, it will be a very different debate from the previous ones.
— Alexis Levinson is the senior political reporter for National Review.