GOP Debate: What Donald Trump (And Everyone Else) Needs To Prove

If the first Republican presidential debate was any guide, Wednesday night’s sequel on CNN will be must-see TV. Once again, the top-polling Donald Trump will stand center stage at the Ronald Reagan presidential library in California, and 10 others – now including the GOP field’s only woman, Carly Fiorina – will flank him. Mr. Trump will have a big bull’s-eye on his back.

But everyone has something to prove in the debate, which starts at 8 p.m. Eastern. Here’s the rundown:

Ben Carson. The renowned neurosurgeon is nipping at Trump’s heels in the latest CBS/New York Times poll, scoring 23 percent to Trump’s 27 percent. That sets up a potential showdown Wednesday between the field’s top two outsiders. Their styles couldn’t be more different – brash Trump vs. soft-spoken Carson – but they’re both effective. Unlike the self-funding Trump, Dr. Carson needs to raise money, and a strong debate performance will boost his already-surging fundraising.

Carson also needs more air time. In the Aug. 6 debate, he seemed to get lost in the crowd until the very end, when he memorably spoke of separating conjoined twins – and about Washington’s lack of brains.

This time, Carson “has to show that he is more than a ‘one hit wonder’ if he wants to continue his surge in the polls,” writes Republican strategist Ford O’Connell in an e-mail. “Ideally, Carson wants to portray himself as the ‘adult’ outsider in contrast to Trump’s three-ring circus.”

Marco Rubio. The junior senator from Florida has also gotten a bit lost amid Trump-mania, but he won strong reviews for his performance in the first debate and so he’s a “sleeper” – someone who could catch on if GOP voters’ love affair with outsiders fades or if Bush fails to catch on.

“He needs to show that he has the chops to be commander-in-chief,” says Mr. O’Connell. “Foreign policy questions could give Rubio that opportunity.”

Read more from Linda Feldmann at The Christian Science Monitor

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Analysis & Political Strategy