A New Republican Debate Presents Familiar Risks and Necessities

Screen Shot 2015-10-26 at 9.14.18 AMMAGGIE HABERMAN Monday, October 26, 2015

Good Monday morning. Hillary Rodham Clinton has been among the lead players over the last two weeks with her strong debate performance, her day of testimony before the House Benghazi hearing, and the Jefferson-Jackson dinner on Saturday. But the focus is shifting back to the Republicans and their debate this week, with new names rising and familiar ones still struggling to gain traction.

The Democratic presidential nominating contest is clearer, if not set, after the Iowa Democratic Party Jefferson-Jackson Dinner. Mrs. Clinton obliquely criticized her chief rival, Senator Bernie Sanders of Vermont, but mostly looked past him, strongly embracing President Obama’s record and criticizing Republicans.

Mr. Sanders, by contrast, took several new shots at Mrs. Clinton, though he did not refer to her by name. So did Martin O’Malley, the former governor of Maryland, who is struggling to gain attention from Democratic activists. Both men seem ready to adopt a more aggressive approach against Mrs. Clinton in the second Democratic debate next month, but without the possibility of Vice President Joseph R. Biden Jr. entering the race, the dinner was a much more staid affair.

If the Democratic fray has stabilized for the moment, the Republican field will hit a boiling point at the next debate on Wednesday evening, hosted by CNBC, even if the format does not necessarily lend itself to the angry exchanges that have characterized the first two debates.
Several people need to have a strong night. Chief among them is Jeb Bush, who, with his father and brother, will meet on Monday with donors at a retreat in Texas, hoping to assure them he is still a worthwhile investment. Mr. Bush, who sounded briefly exasperated in South Carolina over the weekend at the state of play, has been unable to completely remove Donald J. Trump from his mind. It has shown in his debate performances.
But Mr. Trump also needs to show that he can do more than hurl insults about people’s energy levels, as Ben Carson, the retired neurosurgeon, overtakes him in the polls in Iowa. Mr. Trump raised questions over the weekend about Mr. Carson’s religion — he is a Seventh-Day Adventist — obliquely but unmistakably singling out the group with a bit of a raised eyebrow.
Senator Marco Rubio of Florida, who for weeks has been seen as poised to benefit in polls or donors from Mr. Bush’s troubles, also needs a strong night to deliver on those expectations.
Waiting in the wings is Senator Ted Cruz of Texas, who appeals to evangelical voters, but who can also get backing from more secular voters, particularly Tea Party supporters. Any sinking by Mr. Trump or Mr. Carson may be to Mr. Cruz’s advantage, and he is another person worth watching on Wednesday night.