(Bloomberg Politics) — The debate stage Wednesday evening at the Reagan Library in Simi Valley, Calif., is set.
Retired neurosurgeon Ben Carson is closing in on billionaire Donald Trump, the front-runner in the Republican presidential race for more than two months. A third political outsider, Carly Fiorina, has claimed her spot on in the primetime lineup, continuing her own rise in the polls. Meanwhile, a variety of ostensibly A-List presidential contenders with actual government experience have slipped to the middle of the pack and will try to regain their footing.
The latest New York Times/CBS poll places Trump atop the GOP field with 27 percent support, Carson close behind with 23 percent, followed far behind by a cluster of candidates that includes former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush, former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee and Florida Sen. Marco Rubio, each of whom is tied with 6 percent support.
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The main debate of the top 11 contenders in the polls will follow a “kids table” debate of candidates who didn’t make the cut.
Here are five things to keep an eye on:
1. Can Donald Trump be stopped?
The long-simmering conventional wisdom that Trump’s popularity was a fleeting fad has taken a beating after the New York real estate mogul solidified his lead this summer. The Donald can expect a bloodbath; he’s feuding with everyone from Jeb Bush to Kentucky Sen. Rand Paul (both say he’s not a real conservative) and, more recently, political novices Fiorina (after Trump seemingly mocked her appearance) and Carson (after Carson questioned Trump’s faith and the Donald fired back). Of course, nobody is better at made-for-TV moments and insults than the former reality TV star, so Republican rivals can attack him at their own peril.
2. Can Ben Carson slide through unscathed?
Carson’s jovial and mild-mannered demeanor is part of his charm. Confrontation is outside his comfort zone. Trump appears ready to take on Carson, the first surgeon to separate twins conjoined at the head, recently calling him “perhaps an OK doctor” and questioning whether he has “the energy” to be president. Other Republicans might also look at his booming poll numbers and decide to take him on. But how? Unlike the blustery and churlish Trump, he’s not an easy target.