Trump, Carson in spotlight as Republicans brace for debate
Donald Trump, the longtime frontrunner in the Republican presidential race, gears up for battle Wednesday in a third nationally televised candidates' debate, with fellow outsider Ben Carson hot on his heels, AFP reports.
Millions of Americans are expected to watch the debate between 10 Republican presidential hopefuls, at an arena at the University of Colorado in Boulder, less than 100 days before the first statewide nominating contests.
As traditional candidates struggle to make headway against strong populist currents in their party, Carson appears to be catching up to Trump.
The retired neurosurgeon and only African-American in the race edged ahead of Trump in a national New York Times/CBS News poll released Tuesday.
It marked the latest sign of slippage for the billionaire real estate tycoon, and a portent of fireworks Wednesday as the hyper-competitive Trump seeks to reaffirm his position atop the Republican pyramid.
During a rally Tuesday night in Sioux City, Iowa, Trump all but dropped to his knees seeking more support.
"Iowa, will you get your numbers up please?" he said. "I promise you I will do such a good job."
Trump could come out swinging against his rivals, particularly Carson, whom he has criticized in recent days as a low-energy candidate.
Trump joked recently that Carson did not realize he had surged in polls because he was too busy "sleeping."
Don't expect Carson to plunge into the muck. He said Sunday he would not be dragged into the "mud pit," and his campaign appearances have highlighted his measured temperament.
On Tuesday a new Carson ad emerged showing the soft-spoken doctor and author in a buoyant mood, relishing his outsider status.
"I'm running for president, and I'm very much outside the box," he beamed, after dismissing Washington elites for saying he is too unconventional to win.
Struggling to break out
One open question for the evening debate -- which begins at 0000 GMT Thursday and is being broadcast by cable network CNBC -- is whether Jeb Bush, the son and brother of two presidents, will go after Trump.
Despite raising mountains of money as the early frontrunner, Bush has so far failed to break out of the pack, and an argument could be made that he would benefit from showing some backbone and standing up to Trump.
But one major donor said Bush is taking the long view, expecting the Trump "phenomenon" to fade once voters start paying closer attention to policy specifics.
"He wants to govern," the donor said of Bush. "He doesn't want to be in this... cesspool of taunts and nonsense."
CNBC says its debate will focus on economic issues. including tax policy, federal spending and job growth.
With Carson's star rising, he will likely come under pressure Wednesday to expand on his political platforms, and explain his controversial comments about Hitler, gays and gun violence.
Ten candidates will take the stage for the prime time event: Trump, Carson and Bush; Senators Marco Rubio, Ted Cruz and Rand Paul; former Hewlett-Packard chief executive Carly Fiorina, who performed well at the previous debate; Arkansas ex-governor Mike Huckabee; and Governors John Kasich of Ohio and Chris Christie of New Jersey.
Four lower-polling candidates will participate in an undercard debate from 2200 GMT.
The main event is seen as a prime opportunity for Rubio, whom many consider the most serious establishment challenger beyond Bush to go up against Trump and Carson, neither of whom have held elective office.
Rubio is young, fluent in foreign policy, and the son of Cuban immigrants who speaks Spanish, which could serve him well in attracting Latino votes.
On Tuesday, he blasted the landmark two-year budget deal hammered out by congressional leaders and the White House hours earlier.
The agreement would extend federal borrowing authority; modestly increase spending, including for the military; and help avert a government shutdown, essentially clearing the decks of fiscal crises until after the November 2016 election.
Rubio stands third in the RealClearPolitics average of opinion polls, at nine percent, well behind Trump (26.8) and Carson (22.0) but ahead of Bush (7.0), Cruz (6.6) and Fiorina (5.8).