Five things to watch in tonight’s Republican tilt

Five things to watch in tonight’s Republican tilt
© Getty Images

BOULDER, Colo. — Republican candidates for the White House will face off for the third time in a debate broadcast by CNBC on Wednesday night.

The battle hosted in the Coors Events Center at the University of Colorado Boulder will focus on the economy.


Here’s a look at five things to watch:

1. Trump vs. Carson

The most striking storyline heading into the debate revolves around Donald TrumpDonald TrumpHarry Reid reacts to Boehner book excerpt: 'We didn't mince words' Man arrested for allegedly threatening to stab undercover Asian officer in NYC Trump says GOP will take White House in 2024 in prepared speech MORE and Ben Carson, the front-runners for the GOP nomination.

Trump’s integral sell — that he’s a winner — is under threat from Carson, who has surpassed the business mogul in several polls. Carson also topped Trump in a national poll released Tuesday by CBS News and The New York Times.

Carson said Sunday that he won’t “get into the mud pit” when engaging the real estate tycoon but is sure to face a barrage of attacks from Trump as the pair stand shoulder-to-shoulder in the middle of the stage.

Trump has also injected religion into the GOP race over the weekend, questioning Carsons Seventh-day Adventist faith. The retired neurosurgeon has so far brushed off the attack.

2. Will Carson get specific?

GOP strategists say Carson may need to offer more policy specifics, given his recent struggle to explain issues such as raising the debt limit.

His soft-spoken and conversational approach has been a hit with voters — his favorability ratings are through the roof.

But Carson needs to answer a key question, says GOP strategist Ford O’Connell: “Can they see him in the Oval Office?”

“Just being likable is not enough. He’s now going to have to be credible,” agreed Matt Mackowiak, another strategist.

Solidifying his support in areas outside Iowa will require that Carson sell himself as a substantial presidential candidate with a mind for economic policies.

3. Jeb Bush seeks to stand out

Former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush is restructuring his campaign, and Wednesday’s debate comes at a critical time for the former front-runner.

Bush needs a strong performance to give new life to his campaign, and his supporters think the economic battleground could be good for him.

Strategists say Bush needs to offer crisp, thoughtful answers on the economy, but he also needs to avoid sounding too wonky as he seeks to win over voters.

Bush also may want to take a swipe at Sen. Marco RubioMarco Antonio RubioHillicon Valley: Amazon wins union election — says 'our employees made the choice' Overnight Defense: Biden proposes 3B defense budget | Criticism comes in from left and right | Pentagon moves toward new screening for extremists The growing threat of China's lawfare MORE (R-Fla.), a former mentee who many now see as the top establishment candidate.

At a meeting of Bush donors over the weekend in Houston, supporters unfavorably compared Rubio to President Obama, another first-term senator who swiftly ran for president.

4. Rubio and Fiorina moving in different directions

Marco Rubio and former Hewlett-Packard CEO Carly Fiorina both surged after the last debate in mid-September, but only Rubio has seen a sustained climb in the polls.

After a well-reviewed debate performance in September, Fiorina has seen her standing in polls deteriorate. Unlike Trump and Carson, she is being seen as more of a flash in the pan.

If Fiorina is to rise for a second time, she needs to stand out on the debate stage.

"The three non-elected candidates – Trump, Carson and Fiorina – I think there's a lot of fascination [with them] in the state, just as there is across the country," Dick Wadhams, a Republican consultant and former chairman of the Colorado Republican Party, told The Hill.

"I also think Marco Rubio is certainly someone who could do well [in the debate]," Wadhams said, voicing uncertainty about whether Bush's performance so far in the campaign has resonated with Republicans. 

Rubio has benefitted from slow but steady growth, yet he remains far behind Trump and Carson. His campaign wants to peak later in the primary, and he’ll hope to add a third strong debate performance to his record on Wednesday.

5. Can someone else stand out?

Five other candidates will be on stage during the main debate: Sen. Ted CruzRafael (Ted) Edward CruzHarry Reid reacts to Boehner book excerpt: 'We didn't mince words' GOP lawmakers block Biden assistance to Palestinians Cruz on Boehner: 'I wear with pride his drunken, bloviated scorn' MORE (Texas), former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee, Sen. Rand PaulRandal (Rand) Howard PaulThe Hill's 12:30 Report - Presented by ExxonMobil - World mourns the death of Prince Philip The Hill's Morning Report - Biden assails 'epidemic' of gun violence amid SC, Texas shootings Trump faces test of power with early endorsements MORE (R-Ky.), New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie and Ohio Gov. John Kasich.

Cruz seems the best positioned. His polling has ticked up in Iowa, where many believe he could contend in the Iowa caucuses.

Along with Paul and Rubio, Cruz may make the pending budget deal on Capitol Hill a big part of his night. It’s an opportunity to buttress his image as a force for change in Washington.