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.
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.”
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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