As he stood next to Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker in a high school gymnasium in suburban Milwaukee late Monday afternoon, you couldn’t help wonder if former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush was pondering whether his own campaign would ultimately fare better than that of his former rival.
Walker, who dropped out of the Republican presidential nomination race Sept. 21, went from front-runner to former candidate in a matter of weeks late last summer in one of the most precipitous falls in modern campaign history.
Bush won’t have such stark contrasts this evening when he walks onto a debate stage in downtown Milwaukee with seven other candidates for a session critical to his candidacy. After lackluster performances in three previous face-offs and a collapse in his poll numbers, his supporters and donors are nervous and considering other options.
“I’m looking forward to it, absolutely,” Bush told reporters after an event at a private charter school with Walker in Waukesha, Wisconsin. “I’m going to talk to the American people tomorrow.”
Bush and retired neurosurgeon Ben Carson will have the most eyes on them in tonight’s debate. Carson has been trying to fight off questions regarding his credibility in recent days in connection with details he’s shared about his life story in books and speeches.
“Truth takes a little while to come out sometimes, but I think we’ve rebuffed all of those ridiculous charges,” Carson’s campaign manager, Barry Bennett, said Monday on Bloomberg Politics’ With All Due Respect program.
It will be harder for Carson to rely on a blame-the-media strategy at the debate, which will be focused on economic policy and jobs. In past debates, he’s managed to keep a relatively low profile. That could change as he’s moved into a front-runner position, even while failing to offer many detailed policy proposals of his own along the campaign trail.
For his part, Bush has pledged to do better, promising to be a bolder, more focused candidate after the last debate, held in Colorado.
“This new energy must be reflected by Bush on stage and exceed the expectations of increasingly skeptical donors and the press corps watching,” said Republican strategist Ron Bonjean. “A lot is on the line with this performance and it could propel him forward with a new spotlight or cast him as a candidate still trying to find his footing.”
In his remarks at the school, Bush only made one brief mention of the debate, playfully praising three children for the questions they asked at the event. “They’re better than the moderated debate questions,” he said. “If you’re free tomorrow night, maybe you could come by the arena.”
Tonight’s debate will be the fourth of the Republican primary season and will be telecast on Fox Business Network at 8 p.m. Central time. An “undercard” debate featuring four candidates whose standing in presidential preference polls wasn’t high enough to merit them spots in the main debate will begin at 6 p.m.
Two candidates – New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie and former Arkansas governor Mike Huckabee – were bumped from the main stage to the undercard after they failed to reach a threshold of 2.5 percent in national polls. Two other candidates – former New York governor George Pataki and South Carolina Sen. Lindsey Graham – were bumped from the undercard after failing to reach a lower threshold of 1 percent in national polls.
Former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum and Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal will join Christie and Huckabee in the preliminary debate.
Joining Bush and Carson on the main stage will be billionaire Donald Trump, Florida Sen. Marco Rubio, Texas Sen. Ted Cruz, former tech executive Carly Fiorina, Ohio Gov. John Kasich and Kentucky Sen. Rand Paul.
These debates come just 13 days after the last Republican debate, which were widely perceived as a disaster for their hosts at CNBC. Both the crowd and the candidates attacked the moderators for asking argumentative questions, and the moderators let the candidates get away with blatant dodging of the truth. Trump, for instance, claimed he hadn’t said something that was included in his own immigration policy paper. The moderator, who had been right, apologized.
Tuesday night’s main event will be moderated by Fox Business personalities Maria Bartiromo and Neil Cavuto. In an interview with The Washington Post, they said they aimed to do better – and that they wouldn’t put up with whining.
“I understand candidates getting annoyed, but they better be careful about looking like whiners and babies. I see this on the right and the left. I think you can ask very tough questions without coming off like an ass,” Cavuto said in an interview with The Post’s Callum Borchers. “I think it’s incumbent on us to know and appreciate the difference.”