The third Republican presidential debate, to be held Wednesday night in Colorado, will feature two outsider candidates playing new roles.
Retired neurosurgeon Ben Carson will face his first test as a GOP front-runner. And billionaire Donald Trump will appear for the first time as a candidate who — in a few lousy polls, in a few states where people need to get their rear ends in gear— must come from behind.
“I mean, I am second — it’s not, like, terrible,” Trump said in Iowa on Tuesday, where he had fallen behind Carson in some polls after weeks of dominating the GOP field. “But I don’t like being second. Second is terrible to me.”
The night of debates will begin at 6 p.m., with another undercard debate featuring four low-performing candidates: Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal, Sen. Lindsey O. Graham (S.C.), former New York governor George Pataki and former U.S. senator Rick Santorum (Pa.). For all four, this will be their third time debating at happy hour, with no sign of an uptick in polls. If they are going to break out, there is little time left.
The main event will be at 8 p.m. and feature 10 candidates. Beyond Trump and Carson, the group will include Sen. Marco Rubio (Fla.), former Florida governor Jeb Bush, former tech executive Carly Fiorina, Sen. Ted Cruz (Tex.), former Arkansas governor Mike Huckabee, New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, Ohio Gov. John Kasich and Sen. Rand Paul (Ky.).
Both debates will be shown on CNBC and moderated by three CNBC journalists: Carl Quintanilla, Becky Quick and John Harwood.
Carson, who had been soft-spoken and almost passive in earlier debates, will face an entirely new level of scrutiny now. That’s partly because on Tuesday — for the first time in weeks — he passed Trump in a poll of national GOP voters. The poll, by the New York Times and CBS News, showed Carson narrowly leading Trump, 26 percent to 22 percent, within a six-point margin of error.
It’s also become clear that many of Carson’s policy ideas are still evolving, which could prompt questions. For instance, Carson has indicated that he wants to loosen U.S. gun laws significantly. But his campaign says he doesn’t. Carson also said he wants to tax everyone at 10 percent, a system he said was drawn from the Bible. But Carson’s campaign says this income tax rate could be 15 percent or some other amount. Aides say to expect detailed plans in a month.
Carson himself took a characteristically low-key approach to this debate preparation. Instead of having aides pepper him with the kind of researched, curveball questions that a moderator might ask, he met instead with regular voters, chosen from his own rallies. Still, Carson’s advisers said they were confident he was fully prepared.
“There is no question that will be asked at the debate that they haven’t asked and no concern he has not thought about,” Armstrong Williams, an adviser to the candidate, told The Washington Post earlier this week. “No one should be able to stump him.”
For Trump, this debate will be a chance to take shots at Carson — another outsider candidate who, so far, has not been harmed by Trump’s assertion that he is “super low energy.”
The debate could also be a key moment for Bush, who was once the race’s well-funded favorite. Now, he has been languishing in the polls and recently had to order pay cuts and cutbacks in his headquarters staff. If the quiet Bush is ever going to be a force in this bombastic field, Wednesday night is a good chance to try to do it.
Rubio — Bush’s onetime ally in Florida politics and now his bitter rival for the establishment vote — could also face tough questions Wednesday night. Earlier this week, a Washington Post story described Rubio’s frustrations with the slow-moving Senate and his decision to leave it after just one term. “He hates it,” one longtime friend said.
Rubio has missed an unusual number of Senate votes over the past two years, as he planned for his campaign and then spent time on the trail. On Tuesday, a major home-state newspaper, the South Florida Sun-Sentinel, called on Rubio to resign his seat in the Senate.
“Let us elect someone who wants to be there and earn an honest dollar for an honest day’s work,” the paper said in an editorial. “Don’t leave us without one of our two representatives in the Senate for the next 15 months or so.”
Later in the editorial, it was more blunt: “You are ripping us off, senator.”
Among the other candidates on the stage, there are two whose weeks have already gone poorly. Christie, now struggling for attention, got some on Sunday — but only because he was reportedly asked to leave the “quiet car” on an Amtrak train for talking too loudly.
Paul, once called the “most interesting man” in American politics, is in last place among the 10 main-stage candidates. His most notable moment of this week came when BuzzFeed discovered that Paul’s new book was full of incorrect quotations from American founding fathers. Paul responded by calling the BuzzFeed reporter an idiot and a partisan.
Among the undercard candidates, the biggest moment of the week was an odd one. Graham tended bar and downed alcohol during a rowdy CNN appearance Tuesday night, playing along with a silly bar game with CNN reporter Dana Bash.
Bash changed the name of the game to make it suitable for TV. She gave Graham three verbs, and three choices to apply those verbs: former Alaska governor Sarah Palin (R), Fiorina, and Democratic front-runner Hillary Rodham Clinton.
“Date, marry or make disappear forever,” said Bash. “Take your time, senator.”
“Date” came first. “Sarah Palin — we’ll go hunting on our first date,” he said. Next was “marry,” an easy joke setup.
“Carly, because she’s rich,” Graham said.
When Bash pressed and asked Graham if he would erase the existence of Clinton, he was ready with the punchline.
“No, but is she rich? She said she was flat broke.”
Johnson reported from Sioux City, Iowa. David Weigel, in Boulder, Colo., contributed to this report.