At this point in the primary race, politics is a bit like car racing: any time there's a major shakeup in the top of the lineup, the rest of the field jockeys for a better spot.
Two developments this weeks have Republican presidential candidates revving their engines: a new CBS News/New York Times survey shows Ben Carson has overtaken Donald Trump in national polls, 26 percent to 22 percent, and the third GOP debate is scheduled for Wednesday, presenting candidates with an opportunity to move up.
Perhaps more than any one else, the debate presents Carly Fiorina with an opportunity to improve her place.
The former Hewlett-Packard CEO is in the top five, tied with former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush in the CBS News/New York Times poll. And unlike some of her rivals, many pundits see her position in the race is still variable, that is, she could surge ahead or burn out.
Ms. Fiorina rocketed from a little-known, outsider candidate who polled so low she was relegated to the undercard debate to one of the party's top contenders, thanks to standout debate performances in August and September. But she has fallen behind since. Just after her well-reviewed September debate performance, Fiorina polled at 15 percent, according to a CNN/ORC national survey. Now, she's fallen back to 4 percent in the same survey.
Which is why Wednesday's debate is critical for Fiorina.
“The debate is essential because without a good debate performance she’s history,” Republican strategist John Feehery, told The Hill.
Even with a good debate performance, surging to the front may be an uphill battle.
“There’s a certain number of Republicans attracted to outsiders, and she’s competing against the two front-runners,” Dianne Bystrom, director of the Center for Women in Politics at Iowa State University, told USA Today. “She’s competing for those voters. It’s kind of tough to carve into that space.”
Like Fiorina, Mr. Trump and Mr. Carson, the two frontrunners, are both politically inexperienced outsiders, but the similarities end there. Trump and Carson gained prominence for their controversial, divisive comments. They're both light on policy detail, high on style (Trump, bombastic; Carson, understated), and gaffe-prone (or refreshingly unpolished, depending on your perspective).
A shift in primary voters' priorities – back to religious values – may have accounted for Carson's recent gains on Trump.
In the crucial first state of Iowa, Christian evangelicals appear to be key to Carson's recent coup in the polls. That particular conservative voter bloc – which pushed GOP candidate Mike Huckabee to victory there in 2008 – makes up a significant part of the Republican caucus vote in Iowa, where Carson has done well.
A Des Moines Register/Bloomberg Politics poll shows voters like the pediatric neurosurgeon for many of the same reasons they like Trump: that he's not a career politician, for his successful private sector career, for his inspirational personal story, but also, for a whopping 89 percent, because “He has said he would be guided by his faith in God."
That advantage may be undone by Carson's penchant for making what many see as cringe-inducing remarks.
In October, Carson suggested the Holocaust could have been avoided if Jews in Germany had guns, and likened women who have abortions to slaveowners.
In September, he said Muslims should be barred from becoming president, and in March he called homosexuality a choice, saying straight people who go into prison are gay when they are released. (Carson later backed away from this hypothesis.)
Comments like that may create an opening for Fiorina, a more polished, slightly more seasoned campaigner than Trump or Carson. (Unlike both, she has experience on the stump; she ran unsuccessfully for the Senate in 2010.)
She's also the only woman in the GOP race, and supporters see her special strength in taking on Trump, and favorites foes Hillary Clinton and Planned Parenthood – all of whom she's successfully attacked in past debates.
The third GOP debate, airing this Wednesday night on CNBC, may give her a new boost in the race.
As she wrote in an e-mail to her supporters, “Wednesday's debate is going to be another monumental moment for this campaign."