The five candidates to watch in GOP debate

Ben Carson is about to confront his first big test as a Republican star. Jeb Bush is battling for his political life. Marco Rubio’s on everyone’s list of candidates who can soar, and Donald Trump is, well, Donald Trump.

And whatever happened to Carly Fiorina?

They’re the ones to watch Wednesday night as the Republican presidential nomination race begins a new, crucial phase. Ten leading contenders will debate Wednesday for two hours, starting at 8 p.m. EDT, at the University of Colorado’s Coors Events Center. They’ll meet again Nov. 10 in Milwaukee. CNBC will host this week’s debate, billed as “Your Money, Your Vote: The Presidential Debate on the Economy.”

The debate is likely to have a more serious tone than previous encounters. With the first votes, in the Iowa caucuses, less than 100 days away, voters are getting serious. While polls say most have not made a final decision on a candidate, they’re looking hard at the choices not just as outlets for their frustrations, but as potential presidents.

Here are the stakes Wednesday:

Ben Carson

The retired neurosurgeon is this month’s one to watch. He’s jumped ahead of Trump in Iowa and “his support is very broad,” said Ann Selzer, a Des Moines-based pollster. He’s ahead nationwide in a CBS News/New York Times survey released Tuesday. But the survey also found big majorities of Republicans haven’t completely made up their minds.

Wednesday, Carson faces a new and perhaps daunting challenge. Trump has begun criticizing him, and others are likely to pile on. Carson usually dismisses the barbs in his gentle, quiet way. But the public is still learning about Carson, and traditionally, negative information helps define little-known candidates – and can sink them.

Donald Trump

The real estate mogul’s summer of triumph is turning into an uncertain fall. He can no longer promote himself as the clear front-runner, and his numbers have barely moved for some time.

His biggest need at the debate will be to regain some momentum and broaden his appeal by getting more specific about his plans for governing. It’ll be hard, because his negatives are unusually high for a major candidate. Trump’s gotten attention at past debates because of his quips and insults. This time he’ll be asked for specifics, particularly on his tax plan. Unveiled last month, it would lower individual and corporate income taxes.

Jeb Bush

His lackluster campaign and often bland style have cost him. It’s too early to count Bush out, since he and his supporters have raised more than $100 million, and Bush has a strong command of the issues and a battle-tested political network.

He needs to stand out Wednesday. Watch for an issue, perhaps immigration, perhaps taxes, where he can talk with authority about what he did in Florida, where he was governor, and what he would do as president.


Marco Rubio

The senator from Florida is like the athlete who hasn’t played in the big game yet but has enormous potential. Rubio is behind Trump and Carson in most national polls, yet positioned to become the mainstream voters’ front-runner.

First, he has to deliver. Rubio, 44, the youngest Republican candidate, needs to show some gravitas and overcome his lack of government experience. He needs to demonstrate self-assurance when discussing policy, notably immigration. Rubio had backed a path to citizenship for undocumented aliens and later took a tougher line.

Carly Fiorina and John Kasich

Fiorina was the star of the last debate, but any momentum has fizzled. Kasich, the governor of Ohio, got some attention in New Hampshire but has also stalled.

The potential for Fiorina to shine Wednesday night is probably higher, particularly since Hillary Clinton has solidified her status as the Democratic front-runner.

“When Republicans see her, they like her,” Stuart Rothenberg, a nonpartisan political analyst, said of the former Hewlett-Packard CEO.

The rest of ’em

Since economic issues are expected to dominate the discussion, Sen. Rand Paul of Kentucky is well-positioned for a decent night. He’s been an outspoken Federal Reserve Board critic, charging that it “is now in every nook and cranny of banking with unprecedented regulatory powers and no congressional oversight.”

Others are struggling to break through. Sen. Ted Cruz of Texas is trying to woo a constituency busy flirting with Carson and to some extent Trump. Chris Christie, the governor of New Jersey, is aiming for a breakthrough in the New Hampshire primary, a week after the Iowa caucuses, while Mike Huckabee, the former governor of Arkansas, seeks a similar opening in Iowa.

Their biggest challenge could be getting noticed. At the last debate, Christie went 32 minutes without being called on.

David Lightman: 202-383-6101, @lightmandavid

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