Ben Carson and Marco Rubio will try Tuesday night to maintain their momentum while several once-formidable candidates battle for survival at the fourth Republican presidential debate of the campaign.
The debate, taking place in Milwaukee and hosted by Fox Business, comes at a critical time in the 2016 race.
Carson, the retired neurosurgeon who’s surged to the top of the polls, is facing questions about key aspects of his biography, including his descriptions of being involved in violent encounters dating back to his childhood. Similarly, Rubio’s rising poll numbers have invited closer scrutiny. The Florida senator will likely have to defend his use of a state Republican Party charge card, an issue that his critics have seized on.
Meanwhile, the struggles of Jeb Bush — once viewed as the party’s eventual front-runner but now stuck in the single digits — have created an opening that his peers are jockeying to fill.
And then there’s Donald Trump.
The colorful businessman — fresh off an appearance hosting “Saturday Night Live” — remains on top of most polls but is facing increasingly fierce competition from Carson.
Trump is poised to dominate the stage with his populist message and larger-than-life personality. He offered a preview of some of his potential lines of attack on Monday night.
Trump went after Rubio on Twitter, calling him a “total lightweight.”
During a rally in Springfield, Illinois, Trump blasted Carson’s efforts to prove the veracity of troublesome parts of his childhood.
“A lot of weird things are happening. This is a strange election, isn’t it? Man!” Trump said. “You stab somebody and the newspapers say you didn’t do it. And you say, ‘Yes, I did. I did it.’ ‘No, you didn’t.’ ‘Yes, I did! I stabbed him and it hit the belt!'”
Trump went on: “This is the only election in history where it’s better off if you stabbed somebody. What are we coming to?”
The Carson camp fired back with harsh words for Trump on Tuesday, calling the businessman “desperate.”
“It would not be wise for Mr. Trump to attack him. It’s not a winning approach,” Armstrong Williams, Carson’s business manager and adviser, told Jake Tapper on “The Lead.” “If he thinks Dr. Carson is going to drop out of the race or be intimidated by his tactics, he’s lost and confused.”
The format of Tuesday night’s debate should benefit the candidates participating in the prime-time event. As a result of new criteria established by Fox Business, only eight GOP hopefuls qualified for the main debate, offering each of them more time to make the case for their candidacies.
Carson, Trump, Rubio and Bush will be joined by Ted Cruz, Carly Fiorina, John Kasich and Rand Paul for a two-hour showdown beginning at 6 p.m.
Before the prime-time debate, four lower-tier candidates — Chris Christie, Mike Huckabee, Bobby Jindal and Rick Santorum — kicked off the evening with a one-hour “undercard” debate beginning at 4 p.m. Both Christie and Huckabee had qualified for the main debates in previous gatherings.
Lindsey Graham and George Pataki did not qualify for either debate.