Ding, ding: round three. The Republican contenders are in Boulder, Colorado, on Wednesday for their third primary debate. CNBC’s main event will begin at 8 p.m. EDT and feature the same roster—sans ex-candidate Scott Walker—we saw on stage at last month’s primetime event in California. (There’s also an undercard debate at 6 p.m.)
Here’s a primer on what to expect and what to watch for:
Trump vs. Carson
Donald Trump and Ben Carson will be center-stage, both literally and metaphorically, for one simple reason: The two men are way out front in almost every national poll of likely Republican primary voters, and together they have the support of nearly half of the GOP electorate. Carson is trending up—he’s now the clear leader in Iowa and just topped Trump in a new national poll out Tuesday—which means that the Donald will be looking to tear him down.
Trump has spent the past few days testing out possible lines of attack: He’s looked to sow doubt about Carson’s Seventh-Day Adventist faith, his past views on abortion, his (somewhat confusing) plans to reform Medicare and Medicaid, and—of course—his “super low energy” levels. Carson, though, has largely taken the high road to powerful effect when it comes to Trump. Wednesday’s debate could put those competing strategies to the test.
As Lindsey Graham and Scott Walker can attest, Trump normally doesn’t miss when he takes direct aim at a rival. There are, however, plenty of reasons to believe that Carson might not be such an easy target for the blustery billionaire, even if he makes a more passive defense. In a recent Monmouth national survey, the former neurosurgeon was viewed favorably by 65 percent of Republicans and unfavorably by only 11 percent—by far the best numbers of the candidates mentioned in the survey. Carson’s numbers are even better in Iowa, where a mind-boggling 84 percent of Republicans have a positive view of him compared to only 7 percent who view him negatively. (For comparison: Trump was at 52 percent positive and 33 percent negative nationally, and at 53 percent positive and 38 percent negative in Iowa.)
Carson, meanwhile, should be immune to Trump’s favorite attack: He’s not part of the political establishment, an issue that Trump has successfully wielded as a hammer against his more traditional rivals in the past. Carson can also match, or even surpass, Trump on two of the former reality game show host’s favorite selling points to GOP primary voters: Carson has a much better claim to being a self-made man than Trump does, and he can also give the belligerent billionaire a run for his money when it comes to finding frightening and creative ways to break politically incorrect ground.
Trump has tried before, and might try again, to make hay out of the super PAC that has been doing the heavy lifting on the ground for Carson’s campaign. That might be an effective tactic, though Carson could counter by reminding voters that he’s the GOP’s small-dollar champ. And if the first two debates were any indication, Trump’s usual “low-energy”-themed attacks won’t work against this particular rival. It’s exactly that strong-but-sleepy style that has worked in Carson’s favor so far.
The Establishment Lane
It’s getting to be crunch time for Jeb Bush, Marco Rubio, and their fellow establishment rivals. They still have time between now and early 2016 to cut into Trump and Carson’s considerable leads in Iowa and New Hampshire, but party powerbrokers are getting increasingly desperate to see one of their favorites have a breakout moment and bring some clarity to a cloudy race that hasn’t exactly been good for the GOP’s general election prospects.
The man best positioned to do that would be Marco Rubio, who turned in strong, if somewhat overshadowed, performances at the first two primary debates. The problem for the Florida senator, though, is that to date he hasn’t really translated that buzz into anything tangible. Despite everything that has broken his way so far, he’s still neck and neck with Jeb in the polls and trailing him in the fundraising race. Still, he might be content to ride the Rubio-by-default narrative for as long as he can—meaning he could look to play it safe Wednesday night.
Bush, meanwhile, is facing the most pressure to do something, anything to right the ship. During an appearance on Fox News late last week, Megyn Kelly asked him point blank what it would take to make him drop out. On Monday, Jeb huddled in Texas with his family and their network of top donors for what was originally supposed to be a celebration but ended up taking on an air of a political intervention for a campaign in the midst of slashing its payroll and travel budget.
But for all the talk of his struggles, Bush is still sitting in fourth place nationally and third place in New Hampshire (behind Trump and Carson). Bush also has millions in super PAC cash to fall back on. As Jeb will tell you if he gets the chance, John McCain was able to endure a similar rough first act in the 2008 primary on his way to the GOP nomination. Expectations for Bush couldn’t get much lower at this point, which could also work in the former front-runner’s favor: Even a slightly above average performance could be enough to move the needle and offer him a temporary reprieve from the doomsday chatter.
The Wild Cards
The other six candidate on the main stage will have their work cut out for them getting noticed. Carly Fiorina has proved she is capable of doing just that. Her total domination of the GOP’s first undercard debate earned her a CNN-sponsored golden ticket to the second main event. And her strong performance there pushed her into the race’s second tier. Her problem, though, is now one of expectations: She’ll have to do even better to stand out on Wednesday.
Ted Cruz, meanwhile, continues to carve out his own lane. He’ll never be mistaken as an establishment favorite, but as a sitting senator—and impressive fundraiser—he’s starting to look more and more like a plausible nominee. (Also, establishment credentials might not be such a good thing this year.) Meanwhile, he appears to have the most room to grow in the event that one or both of the current outsider favorites stumble. Cruz has made sure to stay on the Donald’s good side, creating the possibility that he could pick up Trump’s supporters down the road. But he may actually have more to gain if Carson were to get out of the race, given that they both are appealing to the same Evangelical base that in nominating contests past has delivered candidates like Mike Huckabee and Rick Santorum momentum-generating victories in Iowa’s first-in-the-nation caucus.