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Presidential Horse Race 2016: Is it safe to attack Ben Carson?

On the eve of the third Republican presidential debate, pundits are compiling their “what to expect” lists and prognosticating who’s going to say what and why it needs to be said.

For those who just want the specifics, Noah Weiland of Politico has put together everything you need to know about tomorrow night’s debate.

Ben Carson“[T]itled ‘Your Money, Your Vote,’ (the debate) will be Wednesday, October 28, live from the Coors Events Center at the University of Colorado in Boulder, which is used to hosting 11,000 fans for U of C basketball games. The debate will begin at 8 p.m. Eastern Time.”

(Note: Rick Santorum, Bobby Jindal, George Pataki, and Lindsey Graham will debate for an hour at 6 p.m., just in time for cocktails.)

All televised on CNBC, of course.

“CNBC says the debate will pay particular attention to economic issues, including taxes, retirement spending, and job growth. CNBC also says tech policy will come up in the questioning,” Weiland added.

Rand Paul has already said he wants to differentiate himself by talking about military spending, so you can bet foreign policy will creep in there somewhere.

Several of the candidates likely see this forum as their last chance to make an impression, so expect some pointed criticisms of the frontrunners. It could get interesting as they jockey for camera time – and at two hours total, including commercials, there will be a lot less of it than last month’s debate.

Will it be “fight night” in Boulder? Maybe. John Denver once sang about seeing it “raining fire in the sky” over Rocky Mountain High… you get the idea. It could be tomorrow night, too.

Fiorina’s troubles and the next debate

Perhaps more than any other candidate this cycle, Carly Fiorina reveals the problems associated with starting a presidential campaign from scratch. Sure, she ran for the Senate five years ago, so she understands the outlines of campaigning, but that doesn’t mean you can just wake up and decide to run for president.

Carly’s taken full advantage of the two Republican presidential debates thus far, “winning” both the “Happy Hour” undercard debate in August and last month’s CNN debate while standing with the top-tier contenders in the race.

Fiorina showed well, people responded. And then after a few weeks she kind of disappeared and her poll numbers have sunk like a stone.

Is it her or just the normal cycles of campaigning?

Kimberly Ross of RedState thinks it’s because Fiorina hasn’t been as visible as the frontrunners. “We live in an American Idol country, where being the loudest or grabbing the most attention is processed as popularity, and that in turn becomes the measure for our choice.

“This criteria is fine in contests of entertainment, but candidates for president should not be seen as celebrities. Currently, the GOP field is dominated by celebrity appeal in the likes of Trump and Carson, and that is frustrating for those who wish for more substance.”

Ross presents the standard explanation, but there’s more to it. Trump is a “celebrity,” but Carson isn’t – unless you count the fame he garnered during his truth-to-power appearance opposite Obama at the National Prayer Breakfast.

Both are true “outsiders” because they’re not lawmakers. Conservatives have had it with establishment politicians who promise something and don’t deliver it.

Trump and Carson are leading because people believe them. Saying they’re “celebrities” doesn’t completely explain it – otherwise, Fiorina could just as easily be lumped in with them.

Meanwhile, Caitlin Huey Burns of Real Clear Politics writes Fiorina needs another big “performance” in tomorrow night’s debate to stem the poll decline. “The next debate offers the former Hewlett-Packard CEO a chance to regain her stride. But her greater challenge is to better capitalize on that performance and prove her campaign is more than a series of bright but ephemeral moments on the grand stage.”

The Fiorina campaign downplays the national poll decline, saying she’s concentrating on the early states, having done 72 events in Iowa alone (only Huckabee, Jindal and Santorum have done more).

And although Carly had a very good fundraising quarter after the two debates, she still has not established much of a ground game to back up the attention she generates from the events. Instead, Fiorina is relying on her Super PAC to do the groundwork.

In addition to those issues is Fiorina’s lack of a political niche within the GOP. She’s positioned herself as an “outsider,” yet her “pedigree, resume, and beliefs are more aligned with the so-called establishment part of the party,” Burns correctly noted.

Voters were pleasantly surprised by her fresh presence in those first two debates, but once you get beyond Carly’s rhetorical mastery, there isn’t as much there to latch onto. Unlike Trump and Carson, she’s virtually disappeared from the news cycles.

So if we’re not learning anything more about her, how could we expect her to maintain a worthy position in the polls? It almost looks like she’s putting too much stock into the debates.

And that will only get you so far. Regardless of how Carly does tomorrow night, Jazz Shaw of Hot Air argues it won’t end up mattering that much. “The problem here, if there is one, may be that debates are simply not the be all and end all of a presidential campaign. They are undoubtedly a fantastic opportunity for a lower name recognition candidate to make a big splash and get people talking about them, but they will not take you to the finish line.”

Newt Gingrich proved it in 2012 and Mike Huckabee did the same in 2008. Both got sizable bumps off of debates only to be swallowed up by the superior resources and organized establishment-funded campaigns of Mitt Romney and John McCain.

Fiorina is good. She’ll no doubt shine again tomorrow night, but are we just setting up for another fall two weeks from now? Unless something changes, that’s certainly what it looks like.

Is Marco Rubio frustrated or just lazy?

Marco Rubio has taken criticism over the course of the campaign for his poor attendance record in the Senate. Donald Trump has chided him about it on several occasions and Rubio even answered a challenge regarding it during the second presidential debate.

Rubio said he missed votes because he is running for president and it takes time… and also that he’s not running for re-election to his Senate seat.

There might be more to it for Marco. I’ve reported that he’s not as visible or active on the campaign trail as some of his fellow competitors, so scratch that excuse. The reasons Rubio’s given for spending less time in the early states was because of his Senate job – but also because of fundraising.

Now it’s been revealed Rubio misses Senate votes because he “hates” his job. “Hate” is also the reason he’s not running for re-election after one term in the Senate, apparently.

Jazz Shaw of Hot Air comments, “You signed up for the job, Senator. Plenty of your constituents probably don’t like their jobs either, but they still have to show up every day and do them. And if you want to be President you need to get on the stick. Nobody likes a quitter.”

There’s a very disturbing trend here. Rubio accepts a job, finds he doesn’t like it and “quits.” Or perhaps even worse, ignores it.

Should he be elected president, there will be plenty of frustration involved. He’ll face furious opposition from Democrats and, if he governs as the establishment politician he appears to be, from conservatives within his own party, too.

If Rubio pushes amnesty as he did with the “Gang of Eight,” he’ll learn what it’s like to hear complaints from all sides. Many of the people who will have voted for him will be upset; his approval ratings will drop dramatically and he might even “hate” the job.

Does this sound like the type of person we want as president? Where do you stand, Marco?

To attack or not attack Ben Carson, that is the question

Finally today, as we look towards tomorrow night’s debate, several of the campaigns are openly pondering whether it’s “safe” to attack Ben Carson.

Byron York of the Washington Examiner reports, “Republican candidates have a Ben Carson problem. He's ahead of most of them. They want to win. But how do they defeat him without offending the voters who admire him? No one has yet found the answer.”

Carson is a unique candidate. There have been ethically spotless non-politician candidates before, minority candidates before and deeply religious candidates before – but not all in one complete package. Ben possesses unique qualities, but he also has “unheard of” high favorability ratings.

If the candidates are going to press him, it would have to be as far away from a personal attack as possible and focused solely on his light policy specifics.

(Ironically, here’s a look at how the mainstream media will likely go after Carson with “Mediscare” tactics.)

Yet even there, Carson has deftly deflected criticisms. Their best bet may be to just hope he does the hard work for them. When Ben’s not talking about his own beliefs and values, he’s vulnerable.

At some point, he’ll have to provide more beef. Wednesday night may be that start of it.

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