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Presidential Horse Race 2016: Themes going into the CNBC Republican debate

Looking to tonight’s Republican presidential debate, we know all eyes will be on the frontrunners Donald Trump and Ben Carson.

CNBC DebateThere will be plenty of skeptics among the spectators, both with those attending and the much larger viewing audience on TV.

And unfortunately for Trump, one of those skeptics is moderating the debate. Eddie Scarry of the Washington Examiner reports, “In July, a month after Trump launched his campaign and watched his poll numbers climb to the top of the field, CNBC's John Harwood said on Twitter that he didn't think Trump could win the nomination.”

“…Before that, Harwood said on Twitter that Trump ‘lacks the capacity’ to inspire a movement like the one Ross Perot mobilized in 1992 as a third-party candidate.”

Trump has faced “moderator” detractors in the past and has turned the tables on them… anyone remember Hugh Hewitt and Mike Wallace?

Of course much has changed since Harwood made those comments in July. Most media figures have acknowledged that Trump now has a solid chance to win the nomination.

But the Trump/Harwood interaction is yet another thing to look for tonight.

Trump’s Iowa conundrum and its larger potential crisis

It was just last week we saw a new development in the Republican presidential race, namely a couple polls showing Ben Carson had vaulted into the lead in Iowa.

Donald Trump dismissed them as bad polls and added that the pollsters didn’t like him. He claimed he was still in the lead in Iowa and bragged it would soon be reflected in correct polling.

This week the trend continues, however, and the news is arguably even worse for The Donald. Eric Erickson of RedState reports on a new Monmouth poll. “In the latest Monmouth poll, Trump is now 14 points behind Ben Carson. One poll, in and of itself, is not a trend. But there are now five polls showing the same trend. Trump is now behind Carson.”

Fourteen points? This is serious, Donald.

Experts have predicted for months that Trump would fall, but this Iowa trend comes virtually out of the blue without any single event to precipitate it. Or, in the alternative, it could be seen as the rise of Ben Carson, who seems like a more natural fit for the Evangelical socially conservative voters of the Hawkeye State.

Erickson presents his theory. “If you examine Carson’s supporters, you find a group of people, many of whom are evangelical, who were long ago put off by Trump’s braggadocios attitude. They wanted their own outsider, but they wanted the quiet Christian alternative. They went with Carson and those initial Carson supporters will not go to Trump.

“Now in Iowa, Carson has taken votes from both Trump and Fiorina and these new Carson voters are signaling they will not go back to Trump.”

Erickson also points out that historically, once you lose a lead in Iowa, you don’t get it back.

Trump still holds sizable leads in New Hampshire and South Carolina, though. If there are big changes elsewhere, it would likely show up in the south first because southern voters are more conservative – similar to Iowa’s in that respect.

It’s something to keep an eye on in the next couple weeks after tonight’s debate.

(Note: Here’s another look at why Evangelical voters are switching to Carson.)

Unlike the others, Trump apparently has no issue with attacking Ben Carson

It turns out that it’s not just Iowa showing Carson headed up while Trump recedes somewhat. A new CBS/New York Times survey for example, has Carson in first place nationally (26 percent to 22 percent).

Nick Gass of Politico reports Trump didn’t take the news lightly. Trump said on MSNBC’s “Morning Joe” program on Tuesday, “But some of these polls coming out, I don't quite get it. I was No. 1 pretty much in Iowa from the beginning, and I would say we're doing very well there. So I'm a little bit surprised ... The other polls, as you know, in other states are extraordinary, actually. This one I don't quite get. I would have thought we were doing much better. I think we are doing much better, actually."

Sometimes The Donald uses a lot of words to say one basic thing: he’s dumbfounded.

Trump went on to say he trusts polls because he studied them in business school. He also hinted Carson won’t stay long in the lead because there are things in Ben’s background that will take him down – like his previous stance on abortion, for instance.

And one thing’s for sure, Trump will keep up the attack. “That's my whole life. If somebody is an opponent, I want to win. Ben Carson is now doing well and I think Ben Carson has a lot of problems with his record, if you look at his record, including going back in past and, you know, those problems are going to start to come out,” he said.

Trump is right and wrong at the same time. He’s right people will be taking a much closer look at Carson’s background, but the media’s already been doing that for a couple months now. He’s been the alternative story to Trump since the aftermath of the first Republican debate and there’s a lot of material out there already.

If it weren’t true, why did Carson’s comments on Muslims and the Oregon shootings generate so much attention?

Carson isn’t a politician. He often has to explain what he means in several segments, yet he doesn’t back down and only seems to come out stronger when challenged. That’s where Trump is wrong – the increased focus on Ben could just as easily help him.

In this unusual election cycle where people don’t care about the established criteria for choosing leaders, Carson rates high because of his impeccable character.

And it looks like Trump is just finding that out.

(Note: Here’s a look at another national poll showing Carson with a significant lead, from Allahpundit at Hot Air.)

Cruz’s plan to pounce

Lost in the debate over Trump versus Carson is the fact there’s another “outsider” who is positioning himself to be the next candidate to rise in the polls.

That person is Ted Cruz, who is quietly raising the money and assembling an organization that will take him deep into the primaries next spring. Cruz has yet to solve the Trump and Carson problems of the present, but there are many signs he’ll still be around when it matters.

Shane Goldmacher of Politico reports, “Cruz’s Houston headquarters is brimming with confidence, and no date looms larger on its collective calendar than March 1. He was the first to recruit chairmen in all 171 counties in Iowa, New Hampshire, South Carolina and Nevada but his entire strategy seems centered on the SEC primary, when a set of conservative and evangelical states across the South will dominate the voting, including Georgia, Alabama, Tennessee, Arkansas, Oklahoma and his home state of Texas.”

Goldmacher writes Cruz has even won the begrudging respect of the GOP establishment – at least in terms of putting together a smart, well managed campaign that can consolidate the conservative vote.

Cruz is a solid third in one of the most recent Iowa polls, and he’s active there too. “With fewer than 100 days until the caucuses, Cruz’s paid Iowa team has just jumped from two staffers to eight, POLITICO has learned, with more reinforcements from Houston on the way,” Goldmacher added.

“The campaign has already used its analytics department to crunch the number of target voters who live in every Iowa precinct (as well as some other early states), and scored them individually for their likelihood to turn out for Cruz.”

While Carson and Trump clearly lead in Iowa at present, there’s a long way to go until Caucus Day. Cruz has staying power with all the groups that currently favor the leaders (everyone minus the establishment, that is) and seems poised to pick up supporters in droves if and when people waver on the concept of choosing a relatively unknown quantity in the non-politician candidates.

As I’ve said many times, Ted Cruz is by far the smartest candidate in the field -- in either party. He’s got a plan and the financial support to carry it out.

Like a lion stalking its prey, Ted is just looking for the right time to pounce.

Bush’s loser talk makes people cringe

Finally today, in contrast to the quiet confidence of Ben Carson and Ted Cruz, Jeb Bush has been talking a lot lately – and most of it hasn’t sounded much like a candidate who’s happy to be where he is.

Jeb’s rant the other day in South Carolina where he said he had a lot of “cool things to do” instead of getting beat up on the campaign trail particularly made people cringe.

Byron York of the Washington Examiner reports, “The outburst left other campaigns aghast. As news spread, a strategist for one of Bush's rivals debated with friends whether Bush would be out of the race by Thanksgiving, or perhaps Christmas.”

It is indeed looking pretty dark for Jeb. York notes his campaign has preferred to focus on Marco Rubio as his biggest threat rather than take on Donald Trump directly – a mistake that could prove fatal.

Jeb will be standing right next to Rubio in tonight’s debate – with Trump to Rubio’s left at center stage. Will Jeb throw in the towel or come out fighting?

We’ll know in a matter of hours.

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