MILWAUKEE -- With 83 days until the Iowa caucuses kick off the presidential nominating contest, the state of the race for the White House on the GOP side remains as indecipherable as any in memory. Ten candidates are polling at more than 2 percent in national surveys, and no one is above 28 percent, according to the HuffPost Pollster average.
To an extent far greater than it has in the first three Republican debates, the spotlight at Tuesday's main event will shine directly on Ben Carson, who has endured several days of a growing list of questions about whether he exaggerated or invented riveting stories from his past that have helped him sell books and propel him as a subject of widespread national admiration.
The typically demure Carson has sought to turn into an asset the sudden scrutiny into his background by employing a familiar tactic: playing the victim to what he has characterized as an overzealous media.
"It's not particularly getting under my skin; obviously it's helping me," Carson told reporters on Sunday after thanking the “biased media” for helping his campaign raise $3.5 million over the controversy. "But I simply cannot sit still and watch unfairness. I am always going to call that out when I see it."
But Carson’s chief problem heading into the debate, hosted by The Fox Business Network, is that it isn’t just the media asking questions about whether some of the most compelling bullet points in his biography are, in fact, too good to be true.
Donald Trump last week raised the specter that all of the made-for-TV moments in Carson’s biography may be a “total fabrication,” and the former reality TV star is likely to look for opportunities to continue to press the issue of the renowned neurosurgeon's past on Tuesday.
One candidate who has voiced agreement with Trump in saying that Carson’s biography is fair game for public scrutiny is New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie (R), who has been on something of a roll lately.
An outtake from the HuffPost original video series, ’16 And President, which shows Christie talking about drug addiction at a town hall meeting in New Hampshire, has gone viral, with more than 7.8 million views on Facebook, and the New Jersey governor's poll numbers have been ticking upward in the do-or-die first primary state of New Hampshire.
But as a result of his stubbornly low national polling status, Christie failed to qualify to appear for the main debate stage and will instead be joined in the undercard contest by fellow relegated candidate former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee (R), as well as veteran junior varsity squad debaters Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal (R) and former Sen. Rick Santorum (R-Pa.).
Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) and former New York Gov. George Pataki (R) failed to qualify for either debate.
After the previous GOP debate, hosted by CNBC, was widely panned by the candidates and media critics, Fox Business Network will be under additional pressure to keep Tuesday night’s forum on topic and to maintain control of its pace.
The main debate’s moderators, Neil Cavuto and Maria Bartiromo, suggested in an interview with Politico that they would take pains to keep the focus squarely on the economy and to avoid turning it into an indictment of the referees. Cavuto said he wanted to remain “invisible.”
“After that [CNBC] debate, I realized, I knew my marching orders,” Bartiromo added. “It was clearer than ever what my marching orders are, and that is to help the viewer, help the voter better understand what each candidate’s plan is: 'Is it a realistic plan? Can it work? And how is it different from the next guy or gal?' And that’s what I plan to focus on."
After Tuesday's debate, the next Republican forum isn't scheduled to take place for more than a month. That means the showdown in Milwaukee figures to have a significant impact on the contours of the race heading into the home stretch before the Feb. 1 Iowa caucuses.
The undercard debate will air at 7 p.m. ET, while the main event will begin at 9 p.m. ET.
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