Seven things to watch in GOP debate

Seven things to watch in GOP debate
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Eight Republican candidates will take the stage for the fourth presidential debate on Tuesday night — the last for 35 days. 

Here are seven things to watch. 

 

Will the media be the story? 

The last debate was dominated by the moderators. Conservatives accused the CNBC hosts of attacking their candidates, and outside observers argued the network lost control of its own debate. 

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The controversy led to the Republican candidates seizing control of the debate setup process from the Republican National Committee, with campaigns suggesting they wanted control over everything from on-screen graphics to the temperature onstage. 

Tuesday night’s host is the Fox Business Network, and its biggest goal may be to stay out of the headlines. The moderators will be Fox Business Network’s Neil Cavuto and Maria Bartiromo, and Wall Street Journal editor-in-chief Gerard Baker. 

Fox Business is vowing to atone for the sins of CNBC by focusing heavily on policy rather than politics or pitting the candidates against one another. That would satisfy some of the candidates’ demands but could also lead to a wonky debate that lacks some of the fireworks — and record ratings — of the past three GOP tilts.   

 

Can the poll leaders go full wonk?

Donald TrumpDonald John TrumpTeachers union launches 0K ad buy calling for education funding in relief bill FDA head pledges 'we will not cut corners' on coronavirus vaccine Let our values drive COVID-19 liability protection MORE and Ben Carson, the two political newcomers atop the primary polls, are likely to face stiff tests regarding their policy acumen. 

Rivals have criticized Trump for being thin on policy specifics and for speaking only in broad terms about how he’ll turn the nation around through tough negotiating tactics and general excellence.

As a successful businessman, the focus on economic policy should be in Trump’s wheelhouse. But there’s a difference between running a real estate empire and having the ability to get into the weeds on Federal Reserve policy or the politics of the debt ceiling.

Trump issued a paper on currency policy Tuesday, a possible effort to get out in front. 

Carson has occasionally stumbled on detailed policy matters, as he did earlier in the year when asked the debt ceiling. He and his allies say he has studied up and is eager to showcase the breadth of his policy knowledge. 

 

Cruz vs. Rubio 

The big winners of the last debate, in Colorado, were Sens. Ted CruzRafael (Ted) Edward CruzSens. Markey, Cruz clash over coronavirus relief: 'It's not a goddamn joke Ted' China sanctioning Rubio, Cruz in retaliatory move over Hong Kong The Hill's Morning Report - Presented by Facebook - Negotiators signal relief bill stuck, not dead MORE (Texas) and Marco RubioMarco Antonio RubioChina sanctioning Rubio, Cruz in retaliatory move over Hong Kong The Hill's Morning Report - Presented by Facebook - Negotiators signal relief bill stuck, not dead PPP application window closes after coronavirus talks deadlock  MORE (Florida), who are both rising in the polls. How they handle their emerging rivalry is almost sure to be a theme on Tuesday night. 

Rubio is seen as an establishment candidate competing with the faltering former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush, the struggling Ohio Gov. John Kasich, and New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, who won’t even be on the main stage. 

Cruz is competing among the political outsiders with Carson and Trump, whom he has notably refused to criticize so far. 

Yet if the two become the leaders in their lanes, they will inevitably have a showdown. 

It’s unlikely that Cruz will get too vicious on Tuesday, but look for subtle statements painting Rubio as a “moderate.” 

It seems unlikely — given his recent surge — that Rubio will initiate an attack on Cruz. The Florida senator parried Bush’s attacks in last month’s debate and is released a video hours before the Tuesday bout that cobbles together clips of Bush supporting Rubio in the past. 

 

Can Bush deliver something? 

Bush spoke for less time than any other candidate during the CNBC debate on Oct. 28, prompting his aides to confront the network in frustration. 

And he failed to take advantage of the time he had, most notably flopping on his criticism of Rubio’s voting record. 

The lackluster performance amplified his downward polling trend—he scored just 4 percent in two of the three major national polls conducted after the third debate, according to RealClearPolitics.

With more than a month between the Fox Business debate and December’s CNN/Salem Radio debate, Tuesday night looks to be Bush’s best shot at flipping the script in the national spotlight.   

His campaign and allies have shown no signs of slowing down their attacks on Rubio, but he’ll have to land those punches better than he did last time. 

 

Who needs a home run? Who just needs to be gaffe-free? 

Bush is the candidate most in need of a big night. 

Kasich and businesswoman Carly Fiorina have each shone intermittently in previous debates but have faded in recent weeks. They both need a win in Milwaukee to avoid sliding toward irrelevance. 

Carson, on the other hand, would likely be happy to put in another performance that avoids serious stumbles, as he did Colorado. Rubio and Cruz, similarly, just need to keep their steady upward momentum going. 

On this question, as on many others, Trump is a case apart. While he will be able to take some satisfaction if he simply emerges unscathed, the flamboyant mogul likely doesn’t want to fade into the background either. 

 

Whom will Trump target? 

Several of his GOP rivals have found themselves in Trump’s sights during this year’s debates, with particularly memorable jabs against Kasich and Sen. Rand PaulRandal (Rand) Howard PaulTrump-backed Hagerty wins Tennessee GOP Senate primary Senators introduce bill to block Trump armed drone sale measure The Hill's Campaign Report: Trump's visit to battleground Ohio overshadowed by coronavirus MORE (R-Ky.).

Trump has tended to take on Rubio in other forums, and his attitude toward Carson has been similarly complicated: He has taken swipes at the former neurosurgeon during individual media appearances but has tended to be less aggressive in debates. 

One question Tuesday night will be whether Trump is more confrontational toward Carson in light of the latter’s continued strength in the polls. It would be more surprising if he went out of his way to tangle with Rubio or Cruz, both of whom are skilled debaters. 

Bush or Paul, for whom Trump seems to have real personal enmity, would seem more likely targets. 

 

Can Christie catapult back to main stage? 

Christie’s campaign might be on the line after lackluster polling prompted him and Huckabee to slide into the undercard debate. 

Christie’s campaign had been on a roll, all things considered, even if his polling numbers remained stagnant. Many Republicans praised him for a strong debate performance on Oct. 28. And a moving speech on drug abuse recorded by The Huffington Post has gone viral, with almost 8 million Facebook shares.

Christie has shrugged off dropping into the second tier in interviews, noting that it’s helped his fundraising. His team is also hoping that the smaller stage — he and Huckabee will appear alongside Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal and former Sen. Rick Santorum (Pa.) — can give him more time in the spotlight.

But the spotlight shines much brighter on the main stage, which has seen a low of 14 million viewers and a high of 24 million viewers in past debates. By comparison, last month’s CNBC second-tier debate drew less than 2 million viewers, while the September CNN undercard drew 6.3 million, according to CNN Money. 

And despite the tough talk, Christie will likely look to leverage the brash, no-nonsense style that has characterized his political career into showing voters he belongs on the main stage. If not, he may face the prospect of becoming a fixture of the lower stage, a fate that could spell doom to his already sinking presidential aspirations.