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What to watch for in Wednesday's GOP debate

Will Carson be the top target? Can Bush get off the ropes? Get a sneak peak of Wednesday night's most important moments.

BOULDER, Colorado -- Republican candidates were here in Boulder Wednesday for CNBC’s “Your Money, Your Vote” debate, the third such gathering of the 2016 presidential cycle. As with the previous two, Wednesday's event will consist of a prime-time debate that includes the 10 highest-polling candidates, and an undercard debate that features four lower tier candidates.

Here’s what to watch for:

1. Will Carson be the top target? While they share a penchant for making outrageous statements, Donald Trump and Dr. Ben Carson couldn’t be more different in terms of style and demeanor. While Carson is soft-spoken and generally avoids attacking his rivals, Trump is an insult generator who keeps the volume knob turned to 11. As a result, the two have mostly ridden parallel tracks in debates, but on Wednesday, they seem headed for a collision.

“You ever heard of anything so crazy as that, telling our people in this country who are seniors or about to be seniors that we’re going to abolish Medicaid and Medicare?”'

Four recent surveys have shown Carson surging into first place in Iowa, knocking Trump out of the top spot, and on Tuesday, a New York Times/CBS poll found Carson taking a narrow lead nationally for the first time since Trump’s initial rise. 

Trump, who is obsessed with his standing in polls, has responded with attacks on Carson. Most brazenly, he has floated questions about Carson’s Seventh-day Adventist church. On Tuesday, he also criticized Carson’s plan to replace Medicare with a private savings account, an issue that could come up in the debate, since it will focus on the economy. Carson has since backpedaled on the idea.

While Trump is the most likely candidate to take on Carson, one or more of the other candidates courting Carson’s religious base might chime in as well. Watch out for former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee, the field’s most vocal defender of entitlement spending for seniors, who could bring up Carson’s Medicare plan. Also keep an eye out on Ohio Gov. John Kasich, who on Tuesday condemned in fiery terms Carson’s Medicare plan as well as his call for a 10% flat tax.

“You ever heard of anything so crazy as that, telling our people in this country who are seniors or about to be seniors that we’re going to abolish Medicaid and Medicare?” Kasich said at an Ohio event.

RELATED: Ben Carson defends call to 'redistribute' school funds nationally

2. Can Bush get off the ropes? No one in Colorado faces more pressure to turn in a strong debate than Bush.

The former front-runner looks weak in the polls not just nationally, not just in crucial New Hampshire, but also in his home state of Florida. His campaign announced last week it would cut payroll by 40% after a disappointing fundraising quarter, and Bush sounds increasingly frustrated by his performance on the trail.

Early polls of primary voters do not have a great record of predicting the eventual winner. But if a candidate tanks in enough of them and fails to inspire in debates, he may not make it to Election Day at all; just look at Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker.  

Bush must remind GOP donors why they lined up behind him earlier this year or risk losing elite support to Sen. Marco Rubio or other rivals, a development that could be fatal. It isn’t enough just to hold his own like he did at the Reagan Library debate in September; he needs a standout performance that drives actual movement in the polls.

One topic Bush will be eager to talk about on Wednesday is entitlements. On Tuesday, he released a new plan to means-test Social Security and turn Medicare into a private voucher system with an option to enroll in the traditional public program. It’s a well-tread idea with roots in Rep. Paul Ryan’s proposals. Is that enough to excite Republican voters? 

RELATED: Trump confused about his drop in the polls: ‘I don’t get it’

3. Can Carson talk about the economy? Carson has strengthened his position in the polls recently by tossing red meat to social conservatives – sowing doubts about Muslim-American loyalties, clashing with Jewish groups and institutions over whether gun control contributed to the Holocaust, pledging to cut off funding to colleges where professors show “bias” – and then reveling in progressives, pundits, and fact-checkers decrying his theories.

Wednesday’s debate is all about economics and fiscal policy, though, and that’s an area in which Carson has seemed less comfortable. In addition to his evolving Medicare plan, Carson is likely to face questions on the recent deal in Congress to raise the debt ceiling, a topic that has made him look lost in prior interviews.

On Tuesday, Carson pledged never to accept a budget that requires further increases in the debt ceiling, raising tough questions as to how he would eliminate the deficit upon taking office while simultaneously heading off a financial crisis over fears that America will default on its debts. Can he handle them on the debate stage?

RELATED: White House, congressional leaders reach tentative budget deal

4. Where did Carly Fiorina go? Fiorina was the breakout star of the last Republican debate, where she tangled with Trump over sexism and promised to take a hard line on abortion issues. She earned a major boost in the polls for her effort, but it seemed to disappear as quickly as it arrived.

Like Carson, her higher profile came with more scrutiny. Her debate answer on Planned Parenthood, which referenced a video that apparently did not exist, spawned a weeks-long fight with fact checkers while her business record, which included major layoffs, came into focus as well. It’s not clear either of those issues dragged her down, but whatever the cause, she seems to have a hard time maintaining GOP voters’ attention.

As a former CEO, she should be well positioned for an economic debate. Can she remind voters why they liked her so much last month and then build on that interest this time?

RELATED: Carly Fiorina feeling the momentum — and the pressure

5. Can Rubio or Cruz finally take off? Rubio impressed voters with his debate performance last month, especially on foreign policy, and managed to survive an all-out assault from Trump afterwards. With Walker out of the race and Bush flagging, the conditions for a Rubio surge are all in place – except it never seems to happen.

While he improved in the polls after the last debate, the energy is still with Trump and Carson.

One issue that came up in the last debate and has gotten more attention in recent days: Rubio’s missed votes in the Senate. Rubio, who is not running for re-election, has argued that his presidential campaign reflects his frustration with the Senate and his missed votes lend him outsider credibility. But it also raises the question of whether he can be an effective president if he failed to move the needle in his current job and gave up on it. 

The Bush campaign, which is by far most threatened by any momentum from Rubio, sees this as a major weakness. Don’t be surprised if Bush confronts him over it at some point or raises questions about Rubio’s lack of executive experience, an issue that the former Florida governor has also brought up on the trail.

As for Texas Sen. Ted Cruz, he’s done an impressive job courting small donors and big donors alike while positioning himself to inherit conservative support from Trump and Carson if either falters. There’s nothing Cruz loves more than bashing bipartisan budget agreements, and the new deal cut between Speaker John Boehner and Democrats to raise the debt ceiling should be perfect fodder. Could this be the debate where he breaks out?

RELATED: Marco Rubio apparently hates his job

6. How does the GOP handle its plutocrat problem? One commonly cited explanation for Mitt Romney’s 2012 loss, including by the Republican National Committee, was that voters in exit polls believed his policies favored the wealthy over the middle class.

Since the last debate, however, several Republican contenders have released proposals for multi-trillion dollar tax cuts whose benefits are tilted towards the richest 1% and 0.1% of filers, joining a number of candidates who had already done the same.

A conservative think tank scoring the plans has estimated Bush’s new plan would cost $3.6 trillion using traditional scoring methods and bring the top tax rate down to 28% from 39.5% while lowering taxes by much smaller amounts for middle and lower income households. Trump, who briefly threatened to raise taxes on the rich, put forward an estimated $12 trillion tax plan that he implausibly claims would not add to the deficit and would dramatically cut his personal taxes, his business taxes, and eliminate any taxes at all on his estate after he dies.

Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal would eliminate corporate taxes entirely and his campaign pegs the cost of his tax plan at $9 trillion. Rubio would eliminate capital gains taxes while offering a more generous tax credit for lower income families.

Moderator John Harwood has written about this discrepancy between the candidates’ populist rhetoric and their tax plans, so expect related questions to come up on Wednesday. Will the candidates have an answer that can carry over to a general election in which Democrats are poised to run on inequality?