As the eight leading Republican presidential candidates meet on a debate stage Tuesday night for the fourth time, the GOP field is in search of a clear frontrunner.
Is it Ben Carson, the neurosurgeon and political neophyte who is now confronting a crush of media scrutiny prompted by his surge in the polls?
Is it Donald Trump, the celebrity stunt man whose most surprising attribute might be his steady presence in or near first place both nationally and in the early voting states?
Or is it Marco Rubio, whose middling position behind Carson and Trump in the polls is belied by the increasingly pointed attacks he has faced from rivals treating him as the real threat to their prospects—Trump and Jeb Bush in particular?
Just two weeks have passed since the Republicans last gathered in Colorado. Carson and Trump have held their positions, but it is Rubio, the first-term Florida senator, who has edged into third place after his strong performance in Boulder. Bush has tumbled into fifth, behind Ted Cruz, raising doubts about whether he can even make it to the Iowa caucuses without turning around his campaign. Bush’s assault on Rubio’s record fell flat in the last debate, but his allies are whispering to The New York Times that they might go after Rubio even more aggressively in the weeks ahead. Will the former Florida governor try to sharpen his case, or will he project a sunnier message and let his Super PAC do the dirty work against a senator he once supported? Then again, Bush could also just sit back and hope Trump brings his tweets to life when standing alongside Rubio.
Marco Rubio is totally weak on illegal immigration & in favor of easy amnesty. A lightweight choker - bad for #USA!— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) November 10, 2015
The debate in Milwaukee will air on the Fox Business Network beginning at 9 p.m. ET, and moderators Maria Bartiromo, Neil Cavuto, Gerard Baker of the Wall Street Journal can only hope that they aren’t the story at the end of the night—unlike their widely-criticized counterparts at CNBC. Perhaps the slightly more manageable roster of candidates will help; Chris Christie and Mike Huckabee have been dumped from the main event after they failed to reach 2.5 percent in the qualifying polls. They will join Bobby Jindal and a raspy-voiced Rick Santorum in the undercard round at 7 p.m. (George Pataki, Lindsey Graham, and the apparently-still-running Jim Gilmore failed to make the cut entirely.)