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As Bush struggles, Carson and Trump jostle for conservative dominance

Six weeks closer to the primaries, trends in the Republican presidential race all have taken on greater urgency.

With the October 28 Republican debate right around the corner, the GOP field looks much like it did heading into the last debate six weeks ago. Donald Trump is in front, Ben Carson looks like a force as well, and Jeb Bush is still stuck in the middle of the pack fending off threats on all sides.

Six weeks closer to the primaries, however, these trends all have taken on greater urgency. Establishment Republicans are no longer so sure Trump is a passing fad. Carson has survived – and even thrived – after a flood of scrutiny over remarks questioning Muslim citizens’ loyalty and claiming armed Jews could have potentially stopped the Holocaust. Now Bush’s lag in the polls is threatening to become a full-blown crisis that could topple his campaign before it ever gets off the ground. 

On Friday, Bush’s campaign announced it would be making dramatic cuts to spending and payroll after a disappointing fundraising quarter that saw its $13.4 million haul outpaced by Carson’s $20 million. Candidates like Sens. Marco Rubio and Ted Cruz accrued similar cash reserves and are looking more and more like potential nominees.  Bush is in single digits in national polls of Republican voters and looks just as weak in New Hampshire, where the campaign desperately needs a strong performance.

Related: Donald Trump won't apologize to Ben Carson for religion comment

Bush dismissed speculation his campaign was in danger of collapse with a “blah blah blah” at a South Carolina event on Saturday. But he acknowledged that the campaign made adjustments in part due to Trump’s staying power, which has caught many Republican strategists by surprise.

Bush, who pledged before he ran to carry out a “joyful” campaign, warned voters on Saturday that Trump’s combative approach would guarantee further gridlock and division.

"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," Bush said. "That's a joke. Elect Trump if you want that."

After a brief dip following last month’s debate, Trump’s lead in national polls has rebounded and many Republican voters now say he’s the most electable candidate. Some strategists are warning that Republican donors may have to target Trump with outside attack ads or risk handing him the nomination given the ineffectiveness of other candidates’ efforts so far.

“Trump has yet to be tested by a barrage of attacks to his lack of record and flip flops,” Republican strategist Brad Blakeman told MSNBC. “I suspect he will behave badly when attacked. “

So far Trump has proven immune to the kinds of gaffes and inconsistencies that have single-handedly wrecked campaigns in the past. In a town hall with NBC's "TODAY" on Monday, he recounted his wealthy background in terms that would have caused the similarly privileged Mitt Romney an endless headaches in 2012 had he said the same. 

“It has not been easy for me," Trump said. "I started off in Brooklyn. My father gave me a small loan of a million dollars."

Trump seems far less concerned about Bush right now than Carson, who two respected pollsters showed moving into a lead in Iowa last week.  

Trump is still ahead in national polls and recent surveys of other early primary states, but being behind anywhere is a new phenomenon for the candidate and his campaign has not taken to it well so far. The billionaire’s Twitter account retweeted a supporter who mocked Iowans as brain-damaged corn eaters. The campaign deleted it shortly afterwards and Trump said a “young intern” was responsible for the mistake.  

As outsider candidates frequently accused of flouting political decorum, Carson and Trump have much in common and have mostly (but not always) avoided attacking each other. That’s changing fast now as Trump grapples with Carson’s momentum. 

Over the last few days, Trump has mocked the soft-spoken Carson as “super low” on energy, reviving an attack he used to great effect against Bush. Carson’s camp responded that they’d like to see Trump perform an 18-hour brain operation, as the neurosurgeon Carson has.

Treading into more sensitive territory, Trump also appeared to raise doubts about Carson’s religion this week. After previously suggesting Carson’s faith was for show, Trump pivoted to instead implying Carson’s Seventh-day Adventist church was extreme. 

“I'm Presbyterian,” Trump said in Florida on Saturday. “Boy, that's down the middle of the road folks, in all fairness. I mean, Seventh-day Adventist, I don't know about.”

In a phone interview with CBS’ “Face the Nation” the next day, Trump denied there was anything sinister in the remark – he merely was “not that familiar” with Carson’s religion.

Carson has risen in the polls recently despite – or arguably because of – a series of incendiary culture war fights reminiscent of Trump’s early days. Over the last month, Carson argued that victims of a mass shooting at a community college in Oregon should have more aggressively confronted the killer and that Jews might have prevented the Holocaust if Germany had looser gun control laws, a claim wildly at odds with mainstream historians that drew condemnations from Jewish groups. This week, he likened women who sought abortions to slave owners in their disregard for life. 

After decrying criticism of his views as “political correctness,” Carson spent Sunday defending a plan to police speech in academia by cutting off federal funding to institutions where professors showed “extreme political bias.”  

“The way that works is you invite students at the universities to send in their complaints, and then you investigate,” Carson told “Meet The Press” host Chuck Todd.

Carson’s rhetoric plays well in Iowa, where Republicans have tended to support socially conservative candidates willing to inflame liberal critics. Former Sen. Rick Santorum, who won in 2012, and former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee, who won in 2008, both fit the bill although neither went on to win the nomination nor have they gained much traction in the current runs.

“I think Carson and Trump are going to be a factor until the end for two entirely different reasons: Trump by the sheer power of his personality and his ability to gain earned media and Carson because of the strength of his ground game,” Chuck Muth, a Republican consultant who has worked with a pro-Carson super PAC, told MSNBC.

The big question is whether Carson or Trump or another insurgent like Cruz becomes the latest populist insurgents to see their campaign quashed by more mainstream candidates in the later states or whether the party’s changed sufficiently to give them a serious shot at the nomination. For now, more establishment Republicans can take solace in that history, but every day their confidence seems to erode that much more.