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.)
After the CNBC debate prompted an attempted mutiny from the candidates and a harsh smack-down from the Republican National Committee, the Fox Business moderators have pledged to stick closer to the issues and economic policy. But how will they handle Carson and the questions raised in the last few days about his biography? It might be a no-win situation for the moderators, who have seen that attacks on the media have been a sure-fire strategy for the Republicans in the first three debates, even when candidates launch them in defense of their rivals.
For John Kasich, Rand Paul, and Carly Fiorina, the goal on Tuesday hasn’t changed much from the earlier contests: They need to get noticed and avoid fading into the background or whining about their air time. With only eight candidates on stage, that should be an easier task. The Republican candidates will meet twice more before the Iowa caucuses and several more times after, leaving plenty of opportunities for contenders to rise and fall. But if the long shots want to knock Carson and Trump from their perches, halt Rubio’s rise, and make a run before their money runs out, Tuesday’s debate in Wisconsin is an important place to start.