What Each Candidate Needs to Do at Tuesday’s GOP Debate

9 minute read

Ben Carson is having quite the rough few days as a first-time political candidate, fending off allegations that his personal anecdotes don’t add up. If the retired neurosurgeon is going to survive Tuesday night’s debate—the first since serious questions have been raised about his inspiring life story—he should retreat to the first rule of being a doctor: Do no harm.

Carson, who has spent the last week crouched in defense against questions of his celebrated biography, is looking to survive his two hours on stage without adding to his woes. The retired doctor heads to the Fox Business debate with all eyes on him and how he might clean up charges he exaggerated his violent youth or misspoke about a scholarship offer to attend West Point. Seven of his rivals will share the stage with him, and each is watching to see if the luster finally fades from this political newcomer.

“He could turn this around,” one adviser to a rival said, begrudgingly. “But he could also implode on national television. Because we know so little about him, it could very easily go either way.” Added another: “I’ll be watching, if only to see what else he’ll be caught trying to explain away.”

It might not matter. During the most recent debate, CNBC asked Carson about his ties with a nutritional supplement maker. Carson said he had none. Before the debate ended, the company’s promotional videos—starring Carson—were ricocheting around Twitter. Carson and his team kept their line: he had nothing to do with the company. His defiance of his questioners helped him raise more than $3 million, despite piling up evidence raising serious questions about his veracity.

Carson’s competitors, too, are looking at the debate as a chance to steady their own rocky campaigns. Former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush has struggled in recent weeks, New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie has fallen so far that he got bumped to the also-ran debate, and business tycoon Donald Trump’s polling has started to fracture.

Iowa is still months away, and voters are only now starting to tune in. As they do, they’ll see a topsy-turvy political season that has seen two major Republicans exit the race, others struggle to remind voters why they were once considered frontrunners and political novices stay in the top tier.

Heading into the session, here’s what each needs to do at Tuesday’s debate:

CARSON needs to say nothing to shake already eroding credibility. On Friday, he lashed out at reporters who wanted to know whether he actually stabbed a friend or relative (he has offered differing accounts), considered striking his mother with a hammer over his clothes and was an angry young man until he found faith. He also has been hit by questions about an anecdote involving a scholarship at the U.S. Military Academy at West Point. So far, Carson has turned doubts about his story into a vehicle to attack the media—not a bad play in the GOP. But the debate’s stated topic is the economy, and the first-time candidate has yet to show that he has the policy chops to run a real campaign and, possibly, the government.

Read More: Ben Carson Faces New Scrutiny as Front Runner

TRUMP needs to reclaim some of his star power. The former reality television star crashed the campaign with larger-than-life bombast and quickly rose to the top of the polls. But as summer days gave way to autumn, voters have started to get more serious about picking a candidate. And the summer fling with Trump has lost its luster, and the thought of spending the winter with the brash businessman is starting to seem dour. Trump is heading into Tuesday in need of a showman’s stellar performance after a dull turn on Saturday Night Live. Wrote the New York Times: “It’s been a running question of this year’s Republican primary cycle: Is Donald J. Trump a clown? Answer: Not nearly enough for Saturday Night Live.”

Read More: Donald Trump Played It Safe on Saturday Night Live

BUSH is having a terrible, no-good time campaigning, and his debate performances are among the worst parts of his experience. The policy wonk has struggled to keep pace with his newcomer foes, often failing to land his attacks with any credibility. In fact, his only good moment during the debates so far is when he took a swing at Trump—in the form of a low-five. The nerd needs to remind voters why the two-term former Governor could plausibly lead a government. Absent some sort of turn-around heading into the holidays, he could find himself in the returns pile after Christmas.

Read More: Jeb Bush Invites Reporters On Bus in New Hampshire

Florida Sen. Marco RUBIO is finally catching his break. He spent the summer playing hide-and-seek from headlines, preferring the quiet organizing in early nominating states of Iowa, New Hampshire and South Carolina. The first-term Senator has the biography that Republicans say they want to paint the party as one of the future: son of immigrants, bilingual, charismatic. A head-to-head with Hillary Clinton would be an easy campaign for the GOP to paint as a choice between the past and the future. However, Rubio needs to first convince the party that he isn’t going to be a clone of another well-regarded first-term Senator who moved to the White House with limited experience: Barack Obama.

Read More: Marco Rubio Earns His Place in the Republican Top Tier

Texas Sen. Ted CRUZ is a champion debater. He has the trophies from college to prove it. On stage, he blends his debating skills with his courtroom presence, calmly prosecuting his rival. Of late, however, he has taken greater aim at the debate moderators and those not in the room: Obama and Hillary Clinton. It has helped him with donors and with voters, but he has yet to land any roundhouses on fellow Republicans. For Cruz to win the nomination, the field must narrow, and Cruz could help that along if only he’d use his formidable skills to go after someone who also wants the nomination.

Read More: Ted Cruz Goes After the Media in Republican Debate

Sen. Rand PAUL of Kentucky is clearly loathing these debates. He sighs and rolls his eyes when he’s not shouting to interrupt his rivals. Neither is winning him votes, and he’s bringing his generally unpleasant campaign mood with him onto the stage. The former ophthalmologist is even struggling to keep supporters of his father’s presidential campaigns in the fold. They are instead starting to look elsewhere, given the younger Paul’s sagging fortunes. For them, Rand Paul is less a revolution than a revolt against two long hours of debates.

Read More: Why Rand Paul’s Filibuster Will Fail

Former Hewlett-Packard CEO Carly FIORINA head back to the debate stage, the one place in the campaign where she is atop the field. The tech-savvy executive has landed solid debate performances so far, but she hasn’t been able to translate them into sustained polling success. The lone woman in the race can be charming and cutting at the same time, a skill many would love to see deployed in a head-to-head with Clinton. However, Fiorina first must navigate the primary calendar and debates.

Read More: Support for Carly Fiorina Dwindles in Latest Poll

Ohio Gov. John KASICH needs a moment. He tried to have one at the CNBC forum, but it didn’t quite get there. His advisers, including veterans of presidential races past, are working to prepare him to land the line this time. The former House Budget Committee chairman is a wonk, and his fiscally conservative views should easily marry with the business-focused debate. He just needs to remember how to deliver the line that his deep-pocketed super PAC can turn into a TV ad.

Read More: John Kasich Lashes Out at Opponents During Debate

CHRISTIE got demoted to the undercard debate. So, too, did former Arkansas Gov. Mike HUCKABEE. Christie became the man to beat after the 2012 elections, only to have a cloud of scandal hanging over his head—yet even his strongest critics have never been able to prove he had anything to with a high-profile political payback scheme. Huckabee, who in 2008 won the Iowa Caucuses, has been limping along during this bid with lackluster fundraising but a ton of time on the ground in Iowa and South Carolina. Both candidates are fighting for their campaigns, and each is capable of made-for-TV moments. They just have to remind enough people why they are credible, so that they can claw their way back to the big-ticket debate on Dec. 15 in Nevada.

Read More: Chris Christie Seeks Comeback As Jeb Bush Slides

Former Sen. Rick SANTORUM of Pennsylvania and Louisiana Gov. Bobby JINDAL continue to be at the rear of the pack. Neither is catching fire nationally and both are struggling with money. Here’s the rub: they two top the tally of events held in Iowa this cycle. According to the Des Moines Register’s running list, Santorum has appeared at 178 events to Jindal’s 128. Their task Tuesday night? Find the first flight back to Iowa and hope caucusgoers there reward hard work.

Sen. Lindsey GRAHAM, former New York Gov. George PATAKI and former Virginia Gov. Jim GILMORE have the same challenges as most Americans: finding Fox Business on their cable boxes at home. The trio was cut from the entire evening’s broadcast because each has such lousy polling numbers.

Read Next: How Fox Business Anchors Are Preparing for Tuesday’s Debate

See the 2016 Candidates' Campaign Launches

Sen. Ted Cruz kicks off his campaign for 2016 Republican presidential nominee at Liberty University's Vines Center in Lynchburg, Va. on March 23, 2015. (
Sen. Ted Cruz kicked off his campaign for 2016 Republican presidential nomination at Liberty University in Lynchburg, Va. on March 23.Tom Williams—CQ-Roll Call/Getty Images
Presidential Campaign Launch Rand Paul
Kentucky Sen. Rand Paul launched his bid for the Republican nomination at the Galt House Hotel in Louisville on April 7. Supporters held signs with the slogan "Defeat the Washington Machine / Unleash the American Dream."Amy Harris—Corbis
Presidential Campaign Launch Hillary Clinton
Former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton announced her campaign in a YouTube video posted April 12 that has been seen nearly 4.5 million times. One boy featured in the video boasted about playing a fish in a school play.Hillary For America
Presidential Campaign Launch Marco Rubio
Florida Sen. Marco Rubio announced his campaign for the Republican nomination during a rally at the Freedom Tower in Miami on April 13. He took a drink of water during the speech, a callback to his State of the Union response in 2013.Wilfredo Lee—AP
Presidential Campaign Launch Bernie Sanders
Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders announced his bid for the Democratic nomination across the street from the U.S. Capitol on April 30, 2015. The backdrop was unusual, since most candidates rail against Washington.Jonathan Ernst—Reuters
Presidential Campaign Launch Ben Carson
Retired neurosurgeon Ben Carson announced his bid for the Republican nomination at the Music Hall Center for the Performing Arts May 4, 2015 in Detroit, Michigan. The launch featured a gospel choir covering Eminem's "Lose Yourself."Bill Pugliano—Getty Images
Presidential Campaign Launch Carly Fiorina
Former Hewlett-Packard CEO Carly Fiorina announced her campaign for the Republican nomination in a conference call on May 4, then went on "Good Morning America" to talk to George Stephanopoulos.Lou Rocco—Getty Images
Huckabee Presidential Campaign Launch
Former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee announced his campaign at a community college in his hometown of Hope, Ark., on May 5. Singer Tony Orlando (right) performed.Left: Danny Johnston; Right: Matt Sullivan—Getty Images
George Pataki Republican 2016
Republican presidential candidate and former New York Governor George Pataki (C) greets supporters after formally announcing his candidacy for the 2016 Republican presidential nomination in Exeter, N.H. on May 28, 2015. Dominick Reuter—Reuters
Lincoln Chafee Democrat 2016
Former Rhode Island Sen. Lincoln Chafee announces his candidacy for the democratic presidential nomination at George Mason University in Arlington, Va. on June 3, 2015.Win McNamee—Getty Images
Lindsey Graham Republican 2016
Republican Senator Lindsey Graham announces his 2016 presidential candidacy in Central, S.C. on June 1, 2015. Erik S. Lesser—EPA
Martin O'Malley Democrat 2016
Former Maryland Governor Martin O'Malley is joined by his wife Katie O'Malley (R) as he announces his intention to seek the Democratic presidential nomination during a speech at Federal Hill Park in Baltimore on May 30, 2015. Jim Bourg—Reuters
Rick Perry Texas Republican 2016
Former Texas governor Rick Perry announces his candidacy for Republican presidential nominee at an event held at Addison Airport in Addison, Texas on Thursday, June 4, 2015.Louis DeLuca—Dallas Morning News/Corbis
Jeb Bush Campaign Launch
Former Florida Governor Jeb Bush waves on stage as he announces his candidacy for the Republican presidential nomination during an event at Miami-Dade College - Kendall Campus in Miami on June 15 , 2015.Joe Raedle—Getty Images
U.S. Republican presidential candidate Trump holds up his financial statement as he formally announces his campaign for the 2016 Republican presidential nomination at Trump Tower in New York
Donald Trump holds up his financial statement showing his net worth as he formally announces his campaign for the 2016 Republican presidential nomination during an event at Trump Tower in New York City on June 16, 2015. Brendan McDermid—Reuters
Republican presidential candidate and Louisiana Governor Bobby Jindal formally announces his campaign for the 2016 Republican presidential nomination in Kenner
Republican presidential candidate and Louisiana Governor Bobby Jindal formally announces his campaign for the 2016 Republican presidential nomination in Kenner, La. on June 24, 2015. Jonathan Bachman—Reuters
Republican U.S. presidential candidate and New Jersey Governor Chris Christie formally announces his campaign for the 2016 Republican presidential nomination in New Jersey
Republican presidential candidate and New Jersey Governor Chris Christie formally announces his campaign for the 2016 Republican presidential nomination during a kickoff rally at Livingston High School in Livingston, N.J. on June 30, 2015. Brendan McDermid—Reuters
Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker Announces His Candidacy For President
Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker greets supporters after announcing that he will seek the Republican nomination for president in Waukesha, Wis. on July 13, 2015 . Scott Olson—Getty Images
John Kasich 2016
Ohio Governor John Kasich arrives on stage to formally announce his campaign for the 2016 Republican presidential nomination during a kickoff rally in Columbus, Ohio on July 21, 2015. Aaron P. Bernstein—Reuters

More Must-Reads from TIME

Write to Philip Elliott / Milwaukee, Wis. at philip.elliott@time.com