Most of the Republican presidential candidates will appear in their fourth debate of the nomination process tonight. The main stage will feature a slimmed-down group, as two participants in previous debates, New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie and former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee, failed to qualify and will instead be relegated to the early event for lower-polling candidates.
The earlier debate will remain at four participants, however, as South Carolina Sen. Lindsey Graham and former New York Gov. George Pataki didn’t make the cut this time. So Christie and Huckabee will be onstage with Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal and former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum, both making their fourth appearance in the undercard, while former Virginia Gov. Jim Gilmore once again won’t be on the early stage.
While most of the attention will be on the main event later in the evening, some observers are wondering whether Christie may be able to use the less-crowded early event to stand out and even dominate. He was generally thought to have done well in the last debate, and his bombastic style could allow him to take control, as an analysis in the Financial Times suggests:
On the undercard stage… Christie will be a dominant presence. In addition to Huckabee, the two other candidates participating will be Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal and former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum. All four are experienced politicians, but of the group, Christie is far and away the best at working a crowd, delivering the devastating comeback, and drawing the cameras to him….
It’s by no means a slam-dunk. To turn this particular lemon into lemonade, Christie will need to deliver a sharp and focused performance that blows the three other candidates off the stage, making it plain that he really belongs with the major players.
The piece also notes that the later event will feature many preset storylines, such as the interest in retired neurosurgeon Ben Carson’s biographical details and the brewing conflict between former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush and Florida Sen. Marco Rubio, that the moderators are likely to focus on instead of giving Christie an opportunity to speak as often as he’d need to turn in a good performance.
Christie may be able to make the most of his appearance in the early event, although it’s worth noting that Huckabee is a talented communicator as well and could just as easily be the winner of the undercard, with the potential of climbing back onto the main stage at the next debate in December.
While the undercard will look different than past versions and is worth watching, most attention remains on the main event. And as in previous debates, the media is filled with analysis and observations on what to watch for and expect. Here are few thoughts from Politico:
A Bush-Cruz tag-team?
Jeb Bush and [Texas Sen.] Ted Cruz are starkly different candidates – one an establishment favorite with a patrician pedigree, the other a tea party bomb-thrower who’s made a career out of antagonizing leaders of his own party.
Yet, on Tuesday night, they may end up being debate partners.
Campaign insiders are abuzz about the possibility that the two candidates, who are running in opposite lanes of the primary, could team up to take down Marco Rubio. The thinking? Rubio is a competitor to both, making a play for the establishment vote Bush is seeking and the conservative support that Cruz is trying to lock up. Both have gone after Rubio in recent days. Bush has hammered the Florida lawmaker for missing Senate votes, while Cruz, during an interview on CNN last week, chose the ever-loaded term “moderate” to label him…
The article also suggests the three lowest-polling candidates on the main stage may be looking for an opportunity to break through:
Fireworks from the underdogs?
The spotlight will also be on those candidates who are trailing – and who need to make something happen, fast.
The three lowest polling candidates in the primetime debate – [businesswoman] Carly Fiorina, John Kasich, and Rand Paul – were near-afterthoughts in the CNBC debate. With the clock ticking down to the start of the primary season, none can afford to have repeat performances. There is also the additional pressure of being granted entry to the next debate, which will be held next month and broadcast on CNN. The network has yet to announce its polling cutoff for determining who qualifies for the primetime program.
With fewer candidates onstage – there will be just eight, down from 10 in the previous debate – each will have a larger spotlight and more of an opportunity to distinguish themselves.
If recent campaign activities are any indication, it’s Paul who might make the biggest wave on Tuesday. On Friday, he drew headlines for crashing a Democratic presidential forum in South Carolina. Over the weekend, he went after Rubio by contending that he embraced the same neoconservative strain of foreign policy as Hillary Clinton.
The New York Times weighs in with a similar piece on tonight’s debate, offering the following observations:
Can Carson Cauterize the Biographical Questions?
As the candidates take the stage, questions about Ben Carson’s veracity in telling his life story are dominating the race. Fox Business may not want to ask Mr. Carson, the retired neurosurgeon, about his claim in a memoir that he was offered a “full scholarship” to West Point, for example. But Donald J. Trump has not been shy about raising the subject. And given Mr. Carson’s rise in early-state polls, Mr. Trump, the front-runner he displaced, has ample reason to go there. Mr. Carson would most likely respond by reprising his attacks on the news media, but many primary voters will be eager to see how he responds under a level of pressure he has not yet faced….
Do the Details Make Trump Disappear?
A pattern has emerged in the debates so far: When the discussion turns to the intricacies of policy matters, Mr. Trump ceases to be much of a presence. Given his real estate career, he could speak broadly about economic issues. But if Tuesday’s debate takes a turn toward details, will Mr. Trump fade into the background again? And how will the crowd respond if he attacks Mr. Carson or Mr. Rubio? Mr. Trump could find it hard to follow through if his criticisms are met with boos….
Does Cruz Keep Holding His Fire?
Senator Ted Cruz of Texas does not like attacking Republicans who are held in high esteem by grass-roots conservatives. He prefers safer targets, like the news media and the Senate majority leader, Mitch McConnell. But with the Iowa caucuses in less than three months, he may not be able to avoid jabbing at candidates like Mr. Carson and Mr. Trump. Those two political outsiders are besting him in Iowa at the moment, and Mr. Cruz would like to cut into Mr. Carson’s support among evangelical Christians and Mr. Trump’s among blue-collar Tea Party conservatives. How Mr. Cruz contends with those two rivals may signal whether he remains convinced that they will self-destruct or is coming to the conclusion that he must be a party to their collapse.
Time magazine has a breakdown of what each candidate needs to do tonight. Here are a couple of its observations:
Florida Sen. Marco RUBIO is finally catching his break. He spent the summer playing hide-and-seek from headlines, preferring the quiet organizing in early nominating states of Iowa, New Hampshire and South Carolina. The first-term Senator has the biography that Republicans say they want to paint the party as one of the future: son of immigrants, bilingual, charismatic. A head-to-head with Hillary Clinton would be an easy campaign for the GOP to paint as a choice between the past and the future. However, Rubio needs to first convince the party that he isn’t going to be a clone of another well-regarded first-term Senator who moved to the White House with limited experience: Barack Obama….
Sen. Rand PAUL of Kentucky is clearly loathing these debates. He sighs and rolls his eyes when he’s not shouting to interrupt his rivals. Neither is winning him votes, and he’s bringing his generally unpleasant campaign mood with him onto the stage. The former ophthalmologist is even struggling to keep supporters of his father’s presidential campaigns in the fold. They are instead starting to look elsewhere, given the younger Paul’s sagging fortunes. For them, Rand Paul is less a revolution than a revolt against two long hours of debates.
Former Hewlett-Packard CEO Carly FIORINA heads back to the debate stage, the one place in the campaign where she is atop the field. The tech-savvy executive has landed solid debate performances so far, but she hasn’t been able to translate them into sustained polling success. The lone woman in the race can be charming and cutting at the same time, a skill many would love to see deployed in a head-to-head with Clinton. However, Fiorina first must navigate the primary calendar and debates.
Ohio Gov. John KASICH needs a moment. He tried to have one at the CNBC forum, but it didn’t quite get there. His advisers, including veterans of presidential races past, are working to prepare him to land the line this time. The former House Budget Committee chairman is a wonk, and his fiscally conservative views should easily marry with the business-focused debate. He just needs to remember how to deliver the line that his deep-pocketed super PAC can turn into a TV ad.
Tonight’s debates will be televised on Fox Business News and also livestreamed on their site, http://www.foxbusiness.com/live-coverage/fox-business-network-wall-street-journal-gop-debates. The first three debates had significant impact on several candidates, such as the rise of both Carson and Fiorina following the first and second, and the emergence (or validation) of Cruz and Rubio as serious contenders following the third. Tomorrow’s news is likely to reveal another shift.