By Dan Malloy, ajc.com Staff Writer
BOULDER, Colo. — The third Republican presidential debate takes place tonight at the University of Colorado. The kids’ table begins at 6 p.m., with the main stage rocking at 8 on CNBC. Here are five things we’ll be looking out for.
- Trump v. Carson — The Donald will be front and center but, as we wrote in today’s premium and print editions, it comes with a new twist: Ben Carson’s rise to the polling lead in some surveys. The dynamic between these two will be the most scrutinized aspect of the debate. Will Trump continue to attack Carson, and will Carson continue to avoid direct confrontation with the billionaire?
- Rand Paul on the brink — The Kentucky senator barely cleared the national polling hurdle to make the main stage. He is now stressing his appeal in caucus states — like his father, Ron — but is under increasing pressure from Washington types to pull the plug and focus on holding his Senate seat next year. Paul needs a breakout, or he could go the way of Scott Walker.
- Jeb! — The former Florida governor and presidential scion is now unquestionably the underdog. He has cut back his expansive campaign operation and grown increasingly snippy with upstart Florida Sen. Marco Rubio. Then there was this quote over the weekend: “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. That is a joke. Elect Trump if you want that.” Bush’s donors, in particular, will be looking for signs of life.
- The format — The main debate will be two hours instead of CNN’s three, bringing joy to the hearts of Donald Trump and writers trying to meet East Coast deadlines. Moderators Carl Quintanilla, Becky Quick and John Harwood are leading a debate branded “Your Money, Your Vote,” so there will be pocketbook questions aplenty. Moderators matter. The Fox News bunch in Cleveland aggressively pushed Trump, while CNN’s Jake Tapper fostered more candidate interaction and allowed butt-ins. Fun fact — it was Harwood & co. who coaxed Rick Perry’s infamous “oops” on CNBC in Detroit in 2011.
- The undercard — Your warm-up act will be Rick Santorum, Lindsey Graham, Bobby Jindal and George Pataki, now that former kids’ table participant Carly Fiorina has ensconced herself in the top tier. These debates have actually provided meaty policy discussions — witness Santorum vs. Graham on the minimum wage — and a smaller stage allows for better flow. But the national discussion has still mostly ignored these single-state candidates (Santorum and Jindal in Iowa; Pataki and Graham in New Hampshire). Will anyone summon a performance to be remembered beyond a couple hours?