Ben Carson is surging, but what will voters think of him as they take a closer look? Donald Trump is falling behind Carson in Iowa and is none too happy about it. Marco Rubio and Jeb Bush are jostling for position and could be headed for a showdown. The Republican field has one less candidate since the second debate of this campaign six weeks ago. Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker is gone. Now Bush is on the ropes. Here is a rundown on where the race stands and what each of the candidates needs to do Wednesday night inside the Coors Center on the campus of Colorado University to stay competitive.
26.8 percent in national polling / 20.6 percent in Iowa / 29.5 percent in New Hampshire
He has been No. 1 in the RealClearPolitics average of all national polling now since July 20, a total of more than 100 days. But he is falling like a rock in Iowa and has dropped behind retired neurosurgeon Ben Carson. The process by which political parties actually select their nominee — also known as reality — is starting to catch up to the Donald. And he has begun to lash out. At first he denied that Carson was actually beating him in Iowa, which goes first in the primary process. But two more polls came out after Trump argued to Matt Lauer on Monday morning that the Iowa polling was an anomaly. Trump will have to face the facts, and has already begun to go after Carson on abortion. That’s a smarter tactic than raising questions about Carson’s membership in the Seventh-day Adventist Church, but in a debate Trump could probably go any direction if he thinks he can take Carson down.
UFC middleweight fighter Vitor Belfort poses with presidential candidate Ben Carson in Florida Tuesday. (Photo: Susan Stocker/Sun-Sentinel via AP)
22 percent / 29.2 percent / 14 percent
It’s been an amazing two-month stretch for Carson. For all of September and early October, he kept pace with Trump as the No. 2 candidate in national polling. But now he is taking on the aura of a frontrunner. He is ahead of Trump by an average of 10 points in the last several polls, and overtook Trump in national polling for the first time on Tuesday. Carson has never experienced the kind of pressure he’ll be under on the debate stage in Boulder, with many of the other candidates gunning for him. In addition to Trump’s broadsides, look for conservatives like Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, to take shots at Carson’s past actions and statements on abortion. In particular, they’ll zero in on the fact that Carson has referred patients to doctors for abortions and that his campaign has defended him for doing so.
Republican presidential candidate Marco Rubio speaks last week in Salt Lake City. (Photo: Rick Bowmer/AP)
9 percent / 10.2 percent / 8.3 percent
The Florida senator’s campaign high command probably couldn’t have planned their candidate’s trajectory to this point any better. Actually, they did plan it, and they’re right where they want to be: still out of the harsh spotlight that comes with being the frontrunner, but right in striking distance as the race heads into the final three months before Iowa. Rubio’s formula for these debates is incredibly simple: deliver his talking points with ease and style, crack a few jokes and flash that easy grin and avoid squabbles with other candidates. One problem this time: Jeb Bush may be looking for a fight. Bush may need to knock Rubio down in order to reassure donors and supporters that he has what it takes to claim the backing of the establishment wing of the party. Bush advisers have already previewed the line of attack on Rubio that Bush is likely to make: that Rubio is a Republican version of President Obama, an inexperienced senator who can give a good speech but has shown little leadership ability and would be out of his league in the highest office in the land.
7 percent / 6.2 percent / 9 percent
It will be interesting to see which Jeb Bush shows up in Colorado. Does he continue to let his id out as he did over the weekend in South Carolina, and to hell with the consequences? Or does he continue to rein himself in as he did in the first two debates? Does he go after Rubio to assert himself with the establishment wing? Does he take the fight to Trump? Can he? So far it’s been unclear. Bush clearly doesn’t relish the more martial element of politics. He’s not a brawler. But he may need to become one to rescue himself from what increasingly is looking like a campaign death spiral. Look for him also to use his newly released plan to reform entitlements to press other candidates on what they’d do to solve one of the biggest challenges facing the nation, one that politicians running for office are often loath to weigh in on.
6.6 percent / 9.6 percent / 5.5 percent
Cruz has been waiting a long time now for Trump and Carson to implode so he can snatch up their supporters. He can wait a while longer. He’s got plenty of cash. But of anyone in the field, he has the greatest incentive to sow doubt among conservatives about Carson’s conservative credentials. Iowa is fertile ground for Cruz, and he won’t want Carson to get too much momentum there. On the other hand, it’s still very early in Carson’s rise to the top of the polls, and Cruz has some time to see how things shake out without taking the risk of attacking Carson openly.
Republican presidential candidate Carly Fiorina, left, with assistant Rebecca Schieber, attends a University of Iowa football game in Iowa City in September. (Photo: Charlie Neibergall/AP)
5.8 percent / 3.8 percent / 7.8 percent
A common headline these days is, “What happened to Carly Fiorina?” She has starred in both Republican debates so far, and after the second she rose to third place in national polling. She’s still at the bottom of the upper tier of candidates, but a pattern of boom and bust is not sustainable. She’ll have to figure out how to maintain any rise in the polls she gets out of Wednesday night.
3.8 percent / 2 percent / 1 percent
Huckabee is the highest polling member of the Can’t Rise Caucus: the eight Republicans who have been stuck most of the primary at no higher than 3 or 4 percent. Each of them is battling some ceiling that is unique to them. For Huckabee, it’s the fact that he won the Iowa caucuses in 2008 but didn’t win the nomination. Early primary state voters want to pick a winner, so Huckabee’s failure to win it all eight years ago is an obstacle to his winning Iowa again. In addition, he has been a lackluster candidate so far, raising questions about whether his bid is just an effort to kick-start book sales and his cable TV career. He’s had some solid endorsements in Iowa recently from pastors and homeschooling leaders — communities that helped fuel his win last time he ran — but at 2 percent he’s worse off in Hawkeye State polling than he is in the national surveys.
3.4 percent / 3.8 percent / 4.3 percent
When the main storyline about your campaign is that the Senate majority leader of your own party, who has endorsed your presidential candidacy, is pressuring you to abandon your run for the White House, that’s suboptimal. Paul desperately needs a major course correction.
Republican presidential candidate and Ohio Gov. John Kasich, right, campaigns in New Hampshire earlier this month. (Photo: Brian Snyder/Reuters)
2.6 percent / 2 percent / 7 percent
The third member of the Can’t Rise Caucus took some heated shots at Trump and Carson on Tuesday in Ohio, his home state, calling their ideas “crazy.” Consider that a heads-up that there will be more fireworks Wednesday night from the outspoken governor and former member of Congress. Kasich is more than capable of going off. His advisers may have decided it’s time to let the dog out.
2.4 percent / 1.2 percent / 3.3 percent
The charismatic New Jersey governor has to believe that at some point he’ll get a shot. So far he hasn’t found an opening. It seems unlikely he will go the entire campaign without some moment where he gets a second look from voters. Like Kasich, Christie has so far kept his sometimes volatile personality in check. If Kasich lets loose, Christie might want to let him go first. Unless Christie can’t afford to stay in the race financially, he’s probably better off biding his time a bit longer before trying to make a move.
Lindsey Graham, Rick Santorum and Bobby Jindal
1 percent (2.8 percent for Jindal in Iowa)
Graham’s “How am I losing to these people?” line was a good one, but he remains without a path to the nomination. Santorum and Jindal, meanwhile, continue to toil away in Iowa with the hope that they can surprise people and finish in the top three there on Feb. 1. There’s still time for that, but so far they’re still stuck in nowheresville in the polls, except for a few recent positive showings by Jindal in some surveys.
0.2 percent / 0.0 percent / 0.3 percent
Don Quixote remains.