The Slatest

What to Expect From Tonight’s GOP Debate

Workers test the setup at the Milwaukee Theater for the Republican presidential debate sponsored by Fox Business News and the Wall Street Journal on Nov. 9, 2015, in Milwaukee.

Photo by Scott Olson/Getty Images

Ding, ding: Round four. The Republican contenders are in Milwaukee on Tuesday for their fourth primary debate. Fox Business Network’s main event kicks off at 9 p.m. ET and will feature a slightly trimmed down field after Chris Christie and Mike Huckabee failed to make the polling cut. (They’ll be in the undercard debate, which begins at 7 p.m.)

Here’s a primer on what to watch for:

Fox Business: Friend or Foe?

Republicans threw a collective fit over how last month’s CNBC debate played out. Fox Business, which no doubt sees an opportunity to best its better watched business-news rival, is vowing the candidates won’t have the same complaints after this one. As one of the network’s on-air promos ever so subtly put it: “CNBC never asked the real questions, never covered the real issues. That’s why on Nov. 10, the real debate about our economy and our future is only on Fox Business Network.” It’s unclear, though, whether the Milwaukee moderators—Neil Cavuto, Maria Bartiromo, and the Wall Street Journal’s Gerard Baker—can live up to that promise.

As I’ve argued before, the CNBC debate wasn’t a debacle because of the questions John Harwood and his fellow moderators asked; it was a debacle because the Republicans on stage denied the very premise of those questions. Cavuto and co., then, can ask the “real questions” all they want, but we’re unlikely to get real answers.

Still, I’m not expecting much media bashing. The GOP candidates threw their tantrum on the CNBC stage exactly because doing so allowed them to dodge questions about why their respective delusional tax-cut proposals simply don’t add up. But with the Fox and WSJ logos plastered on stage and on the screen on Tuesday, they can’t play the liberal bias card again. If Bartiromo and Baker ask good questions in a less aggressive tone, the candidates won’t be happy—but they’ll have to grin and bear it. After all, if they turn on Fox, they won’t have any other major network to turn to next.

Can Carson Escape?

Ben Carson arrives in Wisconsin a wounded candidate. In the past week, his biography—the very foundation of his unlikely candidacy—has started to crack under the weight of questions about everything from a West Point scholarship-that-wasn’t to his insistence that he really did try to stab a “close relative” when he was a teenager. The more immediate question, though, is whether Carson will be forced to address the controversy on stage in Wisconsin. The Fox moderators could justify giving him a pass given their all-economy-all-the-time pledge, but even if they do, Carson might still have to fend off attacks from his rivals—particularly a certain billionaire who is visibly flustered by Carson’s rise in the polls. So far, surveys suggest that the more Republican voters learn about Carson, the more they like him. It’s unclear, though, whether that trend will hold if conservatives discover what they like about him isn’t even true.

Rubio on the Defensive

Carson won’t be the only Republican hopeful under the microscope. Marco Rubio—the emerging leader in the establishment lane—has been confronted by lingering questions about his personal finances and his use of a Republican Party charge card in Florida a decade ago. Rubio’s been somewhat fortunate that the issue has been overshadowed by more headline-ready revelations about Carson, but Fox moderators will have an easier time working in questions about Rubio’s finances given the topic of the debate. Rubio was able to shrug off similar queries when they came from CNBC, but he may have a more difficult time under pressure from Fox or a desperate-and-getting-more-so Jeb Bush.

Cruz’s Next Target

During the previous debate, Ted Cruz delivered a Newt Gingrich–style master class in bashing the mainstream media—a tirade that bolstered his campaign coffers and gave a noticeable boost to his relatively under-the-radar campaign. He’ll need to pick a new target now that he’ll be on a Fox-sponsored stage and, judging by his recent comments, he may have Rubio in his sights. The two men are two of the strongest debaters in the GOP field, and they are currently running neck and neck for third place behind Trump and Carson.

Will Fox and Trump Clash?

It’s been three months since Fox News came out swinging at Donald Trump during the first GOP debate. Bret Baier, Megyn Kelly, and Chris Wallace pressed him on his threat of a third-party run, his history of misogyny, and his tendency to promise proof that he can’t deliver.* Despite that grilling—and Trump’s lackluster performances at the two debates that followed—the Donald will arrive in Milwaukee on Tuesday in the same position he was in when he showed up in Cleveland in August: at the top of the GOP polls and with almost the identical amount of support. This time, though, Trump isn’t the lead story going into the prime-time event. Whether he is coming out of it might just depend on how he and the Fox moderators get along—or don’t.

Read more of Slate’s coverage of the GOP primary. 

*Correction, Nov. 10, 2015: This post originally misspelled Fox News anchor Bret Baier’s first name.