After last month’s bitterly contentious Republican CNBC debate, everyone — moderators included – will be under the microscope like never before in Tuesday’s Fox Business/Wall Street Journal debate. As voting nears, the GOP front-runners are facing tougher questions about their backgrounds and records while the lower-tier candidates are under more pressure to break out, and the debate’s hosts have to manage a field that instinctively lashes out at the press when cornered.
Here are five big things to watch in Tuesday’s 9 p.m. debate.
Will the last debate’s fallout carry over?
Candidates were livid about the Oct. 28 CNBC debate, which ended with campaigns complaining about the tone and subject of questions, and the distribution of speaking time. The RNC suspended an NBC News/Telemundo debate in response, and a number of campaigns convened an emergency venting session, but their efforts at a unified response quickly collapsed (perhaps because some of them realized how bad whining looked).
This week’s Fox moderators have pledged to keep a laser focus on economic questions, but those may be the most loaded ones of all. The two front-runners, Dr. Ben Carson and Donald Trump, have proven extremely averse to detailed policy questions so far; Carson chastised moderators for citing numbers from his tax plan that he had described in a previous debate, while Trump denied attacking rival Marco Rubio for supporting increased work visas even though the quote was from Trump’s own website.
Will candidates return to media bashing mode when the questions get tough – and will it work with a recognizably conservative brand behind the event?
Carson in the spotlight (again)
Carson may have scored points in the previous debate by railing against the press, but he also struggled with policy questions and denied involvement with a company peddling a nutritional supplement as a cancer cure in a way that was blatantly at odds with the facts. Carson, who recently claimed the pyramids were built by the Biblical Joseph to store grain (nope) and that the signers of the Declaration of Independence had no elected experience (not even close), is continuously at odds with fact checkers, and his policy prescriptions have a tendency to morph into something else when questioned. While it’s done little to harm Carson’s core support, the debates always seem to bring his weaknesses into sharper focus.
This week, he’s facing questions about his biography, especially a series of episodes recounted in his memoir "Gifted Hands." Carson’s done a better job lately deflecting some of these issues — he took on Politico on Friday over a piece claiming he admitted to fabricating a West Point scholarship offer and made a decent case the news outlet had overreached in its reporting (even if his own longtime account relied on a very forgiving definition of “scholarship”). After The Wall Street Journal raised questions about whether an incident he recalled at Yale in which he showed up to take a makeup test and was awarded "most honest student" happened, BuzzFeed produced evidence that corroborated Carson's story while adding some new context.
In any case, the 100% verifiable version of his rise from poverty to neurosurgery is so impressive that any attention to it might be a benefit unless something truly Earth-shaking pops up. Those questions may be less likely to come up in this debate given its focus on economic issues, but it’s not impossible and it will be interesting how the recent news coverage colors Carson’s performance.
Jeb on the ropes (again)
The conventional wisdom before the last debate was that Jeb Bush needed a triumphant performance to head off a crisis over his low poll numbers and rising competition. Instead he flopped and, sure enough, the crisis is here.
Two post-debate polls last week put Bush’s support at just 4% nationally, his standing in his home state of Florida has cratered, and his communications director is openly predicting rough weeks ahead. Rubio — the Florida senator and onetime Bush protégé who showed Bush up in the last debate and has emerged as his biggest threat — has collected big donors, big endorsements and earned a modest rise in the polls over the same period. Bush got a rude pre-debate surprise on Monday night with a bombshell New York Times story leaking a planned wave of attacks against Rubio by Right to Rise, the pro-Bush super PAC.
Bush looked impressive on the comeback trail in New Hampshire last week, but by his own admission he’s yet to crack the code of the debates, where his performances have been meek and forgettable. The next debate after Tuesday’s is more than a month away (Dec. 15), meaning he won’t have a chance to redeem himself anytime soon if he turns in another dud. The Bush campaign has never been on shakier ground and another disaster like the CNBC debate could effectively end it.
The Rubio and Cruz show
Rubio was the big winner in the last debate, but so was Texas Sen. Ted Cruz who — with his usual instinct for reading the conservative id — led the charge against the moderators while delivering solid answers elsewhere. In many ways, the two candidates look like the sturdiest bets at the moment and the race could come down to a two-man fight if Bush continues to falter on the establishment side of the field and Trump or Carson fade on the insurgent side. Their rivals are well aware of this dynamic and it will be interesting whether any train their fire on them on Tuesday.
Major questions about both senators’ proposed economic policies could come up — one analysis by the progressive group Citizens for Tax Justice found Rubio’s plan would cost an outrageous $11.8 trillion over a decade, and Cruz’s plan slashes tax rates (especially for the rich) while imposing a giant new consumption tax that could raise prices on goods across the board. Rubio, like many of the candidates in the last debate, tangled with moderator John Harwood over questions about his plan’s bonanza for the 1% compared to the middle class, but Harwood’s premise was correct and if Rubio keeps inching closer to a general election, his tax ideas are only going to face more scrutiny.
The new kids’ table
The undercard debate, which features four lower polling candidates, has a new look on Tuesday. South Carolina Sen. Lindsey Graham and former New York Gov. George Pataki, who appeared in past undercard debates, are out of the mix after failing to meet the minimum polling requirements. New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie and former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee have been demoted from the main debate for the same reasons and will appear in the warm-up act.
For Christie and Huckabee, moving down is a blow to their campaigns. But it’s possible the change in scenery might suit them. Carly Fiorina got herself into the main debate — and polling relevance — by running up the score against less polished competition in the first “kids table” debate. Christie, who has recently shown signs of life in New Hampshire, and Huckabee, who won the Iowa caucuses in 2008, could benefit from the same opportunity.