Tonight, in the fourth installment of the Republican presidential primary debates, the two leading candidates and the debate moderators face intertwined challenges. How they handle them will play a large role in determining the impact the two-hour talkfest has on both the primary election and on future GOP debates.
Scheduled to be held on Fox Business Network, the debate will feature a slimmed-down eight-person field with New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie and former Arkansas governor Mike Huckabee relegated to the undercard debate. Real estate billionaire Donald Trump and retired neurosurgeon Ben Carson will remain at center stage as the leaders in the polls. They will be flanked by Florida Sen. Marco Rubio, who has been surging in the polls, and Texas Sen. Ted Cruz.
Rounding out the field will be former Florida governor Jeb Bush, former Hewlett-Packard CEO Carly Fiorina, Kentucky Sen. Rand Paul, and Ohio Gov. John Kasich.
Sitting across from the candidates will be the three debate moderators, Maria Bartiromo and Neil Cavuto, both Fox Business Network anchors, and Wall Street Journal editor-in-chief Gerard Baker.
The interplay between the candidates and the moderators will be closely watched tonight, as the most recent debate on CNBC in late October resulted in days of acrimonious complaining about what the candidates perceived as biased questioning. The Republican National Committee suspended its future debates with NBC affiliates and the candidates themselves banded together to consider renegotiating the terms of their participation in future debates.
There were multiple problems with the CNBC debate, but the heart of the issue was what the candidates characterized as “gotcha” questions from the moderators. Many in the media accused the candidates of expanding the definition of gotcha questioning to include any questions the candidates didn’t like. Regardless, the impression that the candidates were treated unfairly had some resonance in conservative-leaning media and even among some progressives.
In advance of the event, Fox announced that the debate “will focus on the most important business and economic issues facing the United States including job creation, Social Security and taxes.”
However, when it comes to potentially embarrassing questions, tonight’s stage will present a very target-rich environment, forcing the moderators to choose between incurring the further wrath of the GOP candidates and establishment, and being accused of ignoring major campaign issues.
Ross Baker, a Rutgers University political scientist, said he would be shocked if the debate moderators showed restraint in tonight’s debate while chiding Carson, Trump and other Republican candidates for bridling over tough or seemingly impertinent questions in past debates.
“I think the journalists are intrepid and I can’t imagine that they will pull their punches,” he said in an interview. “They can expect a certain amount of hostility from the stage at them, and I think they have to be as prepared as the debaters themselves. It’s really a question of journalistic integrity and not being intimidated by the kind of reporter baiting that went on after the last debate.”
“The assumption that somehow someone running for president of the United States ought to be shielded from penetrating question is preposterous,” he added. “And the idea that these Republican candidates were so indignant by the nature of the questioning suggests that perhaps they’re shrinking violets…. The kinds of challenges the candidates face are well within the usual oppo-research that all candidates have to face. I can’t think of any living politicians or any dead politicians whose veracity hasn’t been challenged at one time or another.”
Carson – who is running essentially neck-and-neck with Trump in the polls – may have the most to lose in tonight’s debate if things don’t go well. After soaring as a candidate on the strength of his poignant life story of rising from poverty in Detroit to becoming a celebrated pediatric neurosurgeon, he has been pummeled in recent days by media reports questioning the accuracy of his anecdotes in books and public speeches.
Carson complained that he has come under unprecedented scrutiny as a presidential candidate following reports by Politico, The Wall Street Journal and CNN last week that he exaggerated or lied about elements of his life story over the years. Those include claims in his memoir, Gifted Hands, that he received an offer of a “full scholarship” to the United States Military Academy and that he was cited by a Yale psychology professor as “the most honest student” in a class called Perceptions 301 that apparently didn’t exist when he was a student.
Rubio, meanwhile, has been dismissing a renewed controversy over his use of a Florida Republican Party credit card for personal expenses while he was in the Florida state legislature, which he says were reimbursed. Under mounting pressure to respond to questions from Trump and other candidates about his personal finances and his mixing of business and personal expenses, Rubio over the weekend issued records covering a 22-month period in 2005 and 2006, along with previously disclosed credit card statements, according to The Washington Post.
The records show that Rubio charged more than $22,000 in personal expenses to the party’s American Express card, and that the account was nicked with more than $1,700 in delinquency and late fees over a four-year period.
The personal expenses included $3,756 paid to a tile company and $1,745 in hotel and car rental costs in Las Vegas, where the senator has family. Trump accused Rubio of being a “disaster” with his card and living beyond his means.
One thing that’s fairly certain about tomorrow’s debate is that if the moderators fail to bring up issues embarrassing to Carson and Rubio, Trump will probably do it for them.