BOULDER, Colorado — There’s someone new on top of the Republican presidential field as candidates gather here for tonight’s third debate of the campaign season.
After cruising at the top of the polls for several months, Donald Trump is seeing the first real cracks appear in his unorthodox candidacy, which seemed invulnerable.
It started with Ben Carson overtaking Trump in Iowa for the first time last week. Then a CBS News/New York Times survey released on Tuesday showed Carson had relegated Trump to second place nationally. The poll was within the margin of error and it’s unclear whether Carson is simply enjoying a brief run at the top.
But the shift could cause Trump to change his tactics at the debate sponsored by CNBC.
Since launching his campaign this summer, Trump reserved his bomb-throwing tactics for more established politicians in the GOP field such as Jeb Bush and Marco Rubio. But tonight’s prime-time event is likely to highlight an abrupt course correction as Trump trains his fire on Carson.
Trump offered previews of those attacks in the days leading up to the debate.
The billionaire businessman slammed Carson for having “super low energy” and criticized his rival for being “very weak on immigration.” He even went after Carson in a personal way, suggesting over the weekend that the retired neurosurgeon’s religious affiliation — he’s a Seventh-day Adventist — was extreme.
Whether Carson will return the fire is a different matter. The quiet and reserved political newcomer has said he doesn’t plan to “get into the mud pit” with Trump, and when asked by reporters about Trump’s attacks, Carson simply said, “It doesn’t surprise me.”
Ahead of the prime-time debate, the lowest-ranking GOP candidates — Rick Santorum, Bobby Jindal, George Pataki and Lindsey Graham — battled it out at a 6 p.m. ET “undercard” event.
For all four men, the pressure’s on to raise their national poll numbers to qualify for the main debate stage hosted by Fox Business Network on Nov. 10. The so-called undercard candidates offered their views on a budget agreement passed by the House earlier in the day that would lift the debt ceiling and avert a government shutdown.
Graham, a national security hawk, called President Barack Obama an “incompetent commander in chief” but said he approved provisions in the deal that would add billions of dollars to the Defense Department’s budget. Pataki, who was equally critical and accused Obama of holding the military “hostage,” said though he believed it was a “bad deal,” he would sign it in order to “protect our military.”
Jindal was critical of the agreement, but said closing the government over the budget deal was a “false choice.”
Graham was put on the spot for several policy stances unpopular among conservatives, including believing climate change is real, being willing to accept tax increases and supporting a path to citizenship for those who are in the country illegally.
“I’m not a scientist and I’ve got the grades to prove it,” Graham said, drawing laughter from the room. But the majority of scientists, he added, “are telling me that greenhouse gas effects are real, that we’re heating up our planet.”
Regarding immigration, Graham said he doesn’t believe in mass deportation, but instead wants to fix the problem by, in part, securing the country’s borders. “I want to talk about fixing the problem.”
Heading into the prime-time showdown, Trump’s new vulnerability also offers political openings for his other, lower-ranking rivals, who have suffered from the bombastic real estate mogul’s dominance.
Bush, whose campaign is badly in need of a jolt of energy and is one of Trump’s favorite targets, seems particularly eager to put Trump on the spot. The former Florida governor also seems increasingly focused on drawing a contrast between himself and Rubio, his one-time mentee.
Carly Fiorina, who gave an impressive performance at last month’s CNN debate and directly took on Trump, may also want to seize on the opening to try to bring up her single-digit poll numbers.
The other candidates taking the debate stage at 8 p.m. ET at the Coors Event Center at the University of Colorado campus here are Chris Christie, Ted Cruz, Mike Huckabee, John Kasich and Rand Paul.