Can Donald Trump stay on top, hold off surging Ben Carson at key debate?

Posted at 5:20 PM, Sep 16, 2015
and last updated 2015-09-16 17:20:34-04

SIMI VALLEY, California — Donald Trump is barreling into tonight’s CNN debate with more than a dozen other candidates aiming to slow the billionaire businessman’s juggernaut and break through the cluttered field.

The showdown will begin in earnest at 6 p.m. when the Republican field’s four lowest-polling candidates — South Carolina Sen. Lindsey Graham, Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal, former New York Gov. George Pataki and former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum — take the stage here at the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library. Some of these candidates, particularly Graham, will likely try to make a strong case against Trump.

The bottom-tier is suffering from Trump’s domination of the 2016 race this summer, as he’s captivated GOP voters with his outsider message. The fate of these low-polling campaigns could hinge on whether the candidates can deliver a memorable performance tonight.

When Trump ultimately walks on stage at 8 p.m. tonight main debate with 10 other leading candidates, he’s likely to face sustained attacks from multiple fronts and will have to prove he can handle the pressure.

Tonight’s debate also comes at a crucial point in the GOP primary with tensions running high and establishment candidates struggling against their outsider counterparts.

Going into the night, Trump says he might try a different approach.

“I could tone it down a little bit when pressed,” he told the Christian Broadcasting Network in an interview today. “You need a person of tremendous strength but I think I can tone it down a little bit and I’ll try.”

Trump is suddenly facing stiff competition from retired neurosurgeon Ben Carson, who is surging in the polls. The two, who are most effectively harnessing the desire among many primary voters for an outsider candidate, have sparred over the past week about their faith.

But Trump may face the most intense attacks from Carly Fiorina and Jeb Bush.

Fiorina, whose breakout performance at last month’s debate helped her land a spot in tonight’s prime-time showdown, is intent on upstaging Trump. Trump has attacked Fiorina’s business record as the CEO of Hewlett-Packard while she has slammed Trump for being light on substance.

Their sparring intensified over the past week after Rolling Stone published an interview with Trump in which he dismissed Fiorina by saying, “Look at that face! Would anyone vote for that?”

Fiorina shot back: “I am proud of every year and every wrinkle.”

Bush may have the most at stake in the debate. Despite his $100 million bank account and record as a two-term governor running one of the country’s largest — and most complex — states, Bush is tumbling in the polls.

After a lackluster performance last month, he’ll have to prove that he can turn his troubled campaign around. He’ll do that, in part, by taking on Trump directly after spending much of the summer ignoring his presence.

Bush is already taking a more aggressive stance. In recent interviews and posts on social media, the former Florida governor has repeatedly questioned Trump’s conservative bona fides, slamming the businessman on issues like immigration, healthcare and taxes.

A new web video released the week from Right to Rise, the pro-Bush, super PAC could preview the type of message he might offer tonight. The video labeled Trump as a candidate “in a very dark place” before presenting Bush as someone who is choosing a “brighter path.”