Watch Out For These Dynamics In Tonight's Debate

by Leigh Ann Caldwell /  / Updated 

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The third Republican presidential debate comes at a pivotal moment in the race for the GOP nomination with less than 100 days to go before voters head to the caucuses in Iowa. Several internal dynamics are shaping the race, pitting outsiders against more establishment candidates – and candidates seeking those two mantles against one another.

As you tune into tonight's “Your Money, Your Vote” debate on CNBC at the University of Colorado in Boulder, here are some of the fights within the fight to watch:

Trump v. Carson: As one national poll and a series of state polls in Iowa show Donald Trump behind challenger Ben Carson, Trump has gone on the offensive. The real estate mogul has not only stepped up his attacks against Carson, but he’s also pleaded Iowans to “get those (poll) numbers up.” Carson has mostly resisted responding to Trump’s attacks, but as the two will be standing next to each other on the debate stage, the interactions between the vocally aggressive Trump and the soft-spoken Carson could be the most compelling parts of the night.

Bush v. Rubio: Jeb Bush and Marco Rubio both have a lot at stake during tonight’s debate. The two Floridians and former mentor/mentee now find that they are each other's biggest competitors. Both are competing for the same pot of donors and the same tranche of voters in the establishment lane of the Republican Party and are registering in the same upper single digits in the polls. Both candidates are feeling pressure from their donors to step up their game break out of the pack.

Related: A Viewer's Guide to Tonight's Debate on CNBC

Ted Cruz v. himself: Ted Cruz has been chugging along. He continues to sit at the top of the second tier or candidates in polls and posted relatively impressive quarterly fundraising numbers. Cruz often appeals to a different kind of Republican than Rubio or Bush. As Rand Paul, Rick Santorum and Mike Huckabee are failing to register with the more conservative voters, Cruz is. Cruz’s only real enemy tonight is himself. If he delivers a strong debate performance, the slow and steady campaign of Ted Cruz will be in good shape.

Chris Christie v. John Kasich: Both John Kasich and Chris Christie have positioned themselves as the moderate truth-telling politicians not afraid to buck their party. Both are competing heavily in New Hampshire, a state more suited to their focus on fiscal conservatism, and both are struggling to register above the low single digits.

Related: Look Out For These Differences On The Economy

During the last debate, Christie was aggressive in inserting himself into the conversation but attempted to appear above the fray by saying that the country doesn’t care about the fights between Republicans but about how their lives are going to improve. It’s a strategy that worked for Christie last time.

Kasich, meanwhile, has just started to attack his fellow challengers after insisting that he would not criticize fellow Republicans. He could take that strategy in Boulder.

Trump v. Everyone: During Trump's ascension to the top of the polls, he has liberally attacked every candidate at one time or another. The candidates have their chance to return the favor.

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