The stage will be crowded again, but the race for the Republican presidential nomination is narrowing as the candidates gather for the third debate of this tumultuous 2016 primary campaign on Wednesday night in Boulder, Colorado. For the first time, Donald Trump will take his place as under serious pressure, with Dr. Ben Carson storming ahead of the billionaire reality TV star in a series of recent national and statewide polls.
While Trump and Carson run lengths ahead of the field, Sens. Marco Rubio (Fla.) and Ted Cruz (Texas), along with former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush and former Hewlett Packard CEO Carly Fiorina, are kicking up mud — often toward one another — as they seek to position themselves as moderate voters' alternative to the inexperienced and occasionally unhinged frontrunners.
The debate, which will be hosted by CNBC, is slated to focus on economic issues. "Your money, your vote," is the tagline, and the questions will be asked by a panel of three: John Harwood, who also works as a political reporter for the New York Times, and CNBC co-anchors Carl Quintanilla and Becky Quick. The festivities will last only two hours this time around — the last debate, in Simi Valley, California, went for three — which should have the dual effect of limiting the amount of desperately needed airtime for stragglers like Kentucky Sen. Rand Paul and New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie while protecting Trump and Carson from any extended inquisitions.
Expect a series of tense exchanges among a series of candidates increasingly desperate for their breakthrough moments. That, and some bad jokes about Colorado's legally available marijuana. (Except from Paul and Christie, who are even-money to reprise their "freedom versus liberty" argument, this time on the subject of marijuana prohibition.)
Here, then, to pass the hours before the debate begins — on CNBC at 8 p.m. Eastern — are five big questions facing the candidates and their campaigns:
1. Will Bush step up his game, or is this the beginning of the end?
It's getting late early for Bush. The presumptive front-runner going into the race, Bush has been a colossal disappointment on the stump. Despite a super PAC which has raised more than $100 million, his actual campaign is bleeding green and already beginning to cut staff and other expenses.
This past weekend, Bush drafted in his brother, former President George W. Bush, and father, former President George H.W. Bush, along with super PAC chief and top political consultant, Mike Murphy, to (successfully, Politico reports) massage the anxious donors.
But what about the voters? There is nothing to indicate he is making any kind of inroads with the people who will decide the next Republican presidential nominee. RealClearPolitics' poll average finds him 20 points behind Trump nationwide. In New Hampshire, where Bush might figure to have more success? Also down 20 points. In early-voting Iowa, the deficit is only 14% — but he trails Carson there by 23%.
Bush didn't help his case on Saturday, when in remarks to supporters in South Carolina he showed off a surprisingly petulant side:
"I've got a lot of really cool things I could do other than sit around, being miserable, listening to people demonize me and me feeling compelled to demonize them," he said. "That is a joke. Elect Trump if you want that."
Barring a fairly swift reversal of the narrative, Bush seems poised to enjoy those "cool things" sooner than anyone could have dreamed. But if he is to author the kind of revival his team is promising, the debate stage is the place to do it. The first two GOP meetings drew record TV audiences. Even if they're tuning in for Trump, a strong night for Bush could ease a lot of nerves and right a campaign ship currently looking doomed to wreck.
2. Will Marco Rubio seize the moment, or steer clear of traffic?
Is there anyone in this mad 2016 dash who has run more consistently and competently than Rubio? Yes, he has missed a lot of votes in the Senate, essentially blowing off his day job to focus on the campaign. But if that's the worst his GOP opponents have on him, well, they don't have much.
While Trump and Carson win headlines and Bush and Paul try to brush off the doomsayers, Rubio has been comfortably floating forward, picking up points in the polls, where he is often the only elected official to crack double-digits. The potential downside to Rubio's stealth strategy only comes to the fore during these debates, when he can seem to recede into the crowded chorus of hopefuls, ceding oxygen and airtime to his rivals.
On Wednesday night Rubio will be looking for a breakthrough. Trump has led the polls for months and is no longer certain to collapse under his own weight. Something or someone will need to lay him low. Does Rubio have the steel for it? We'll get a pretty good clue in the next two weeks.
3. Can Cruz step out of Trump's shadow? Does he even want to?
Like his colleague from Florida, Cruz has been playing the long game with apparent success. He is far behind the frontrunners in most opinion polls, but the money is still streaming in, and his campaign has a coherent strategy in place. It calls for Cruz to draft off Trump like a race car driver, keeping close as the billionaire builds a constituency, then emerging off Trump's flank if he fades or drifts.
There is a pretty good chance Cruz will continue to bide his time and toe the line on Wednesday. Mathematically, there is no compelling reason to ditch Trump now.
Still, this is a risky path. Even if Trump does come undone in the next few months, one has to wonder if Cruz will have enough time and infrastructure to successfully plant himself as the next best thing. Again, a memorable moment or two in this debate would do a lot to improve his position going forward.
4. Can Carson perform like a frontrunner, or will he wilt in the spotlight?
Carson has been lingering in the top five of this topsy-turvy Republican race for months. Like Trump, his total lack of experience in government and tendency to say some really weird stuff have only helped him along. Earlier this week, he swept into the lead of the Des Moines Register/Bloomberg Politics survey of GOP voters in Iowa. Trump pounced, using that favorite putdown of his, calling the retired neurosurgeon "super low-energy."
Carson took the jabs in stride and spoke frankly about his volatile youth.
"As a teenager, I would go after people with rocks, and bricks, and baseball bats and hammers. And, of course, many people know the story when I was 14 and I tried to stab someone," Carson said Sunday on NBC's Meet the Press. "You know, fortunately, my life has been changed. And I'm a very different person now."
Not to mention a very different candidate than the one he was when he first joined the race in May. In Boulder, he will be in the crosshairs, with Trump especially champing at the bit to reclaim his throne as the unquestioned leader of the anti-establishment insurgency. Carson's willingness to take him on could change the shape of the debate.
5. Who is making their final appearance on the debate stage?
Oddly, probably no one. To start, there is another debate on Nov. 10 in Wisconsin. Unless one of the candidates is quietly hemorrhaging money — Bush is in flux, but far from broke — the likelihood is that the lineup for debate four will look a lot like this one, which, minus Gov. Scott Walker, is the same as that in number two, on Sept. 16 in Simi Valley, California.
But even then, this outing like the next one will be crucial for a handful of the middling contenders. Paul, Fiorina, Huckabee and Christie are all running passable campaigns — or appealing to some recognizable constituency — but struggling to pick up enough traction to create the kind of buzz necessary to sustain these expense operations.
If you're going to watch one of the above, keep an eye on Christie. The bombastic governor needs to wipe away headlines about his misadventures on the Acela train and start making some headway in the polls. Though his scraps with Paul over domestic surveillance might be good entertainment and rather more substantive than a lot of the other issues up for discussion, on this occasion Christie would be wise to take a chunk out of Bush. They feed from roughly the same donor trough, so a further damaged Bush could mean a fresh look, and maybe even some precious new funds, for the slow-starting governor.