Ben Carson is entering Wednesday night's third GOP presidential debate with a surge of momentum, ensuring the soft-spoken retired neurosurgeon will face heightened attention from rivals in need of a breakout moment three months before primary voting begins.
Carson, a low-key presence in the first two debates, could face a barrage of criticism from the nine other candidates on stage. Since Donald Trump fell behind him in Iowa polls, Trump has been aggressively jabbing his rival for his speaking style and raising questions about his Seventh-day Adventist faith.
"We'll see how Ben holds up to the scrutiny," Trump said Tuesday on MSNBC.
Trump has been the main attraction in the GOP debates, helping draw record audiences to the prime-time television events. But his slip in Iowa has prompted some speculation among Republicans that the tide could be turning against the bombastic real estate mogul, and a weak performance Wednesday could reinforce that view.
Also in need of a strong night is former Florida governor Jeb Bush, who is in the midst of one of the most trying stretches of his White House campaign. Slower-than-expected fundraising has led Bush to cut spending and overhaul his campaign structure, and he's voiced frustration with the way the unusual race has progressed.
If the election is going to be about fighting to get nothing done, he says, "I don't want any part of it."
Taken together, it's a Republican field that remains crowded and unwieldy with less than 100 days until the Iowa caucuses. The political rookies appealing to voter anger with Washington have ceded no ground, and establishment politicians are still waiting for the race to turn their way — and increasingly wondering if it ever will.
The jumbled GOP race is a stark contrast to the Democratic field, where Hillary Rodham Clinton has strengthened her standing as the clear front-runner. Campaigning in New Hampshire Wednesday, she said the GOP debates are like a "reality TV show but the cast of characters are out of touch with actual reality."
The debate in Colorado, an important general election battleground state, will run for two hours after the last affair went on for more than three. Debate host CNBC has said the event will focus on economic issues, including taxes and job growth.
Among the participants are two freshman senators – Florida's Marco Rubio and Ted Cruz of Texas. Rubio has sought to capitalize on Bush's stumbles but faces his own financial concerns. Cruz is positioning himself to inherit Trump's supporters if that campaign collapses.
While Carson is unknown to many Americans, he's built a loyal following with tea party-aligned voters and religious conservatives. His campaign has started running new television advertisements in early voting states that center on his experience as a doctor and highlight his status as a political outsider.
Carson has raised eyebrows with incendiary comments about Muslims and references to Nazis and slavery on the campaign trail. But his standing in early states has only appeared to strengthen with each controversial comment.
Carson's biggest weakness may be a lack of specific policy proposals. The issues listed on his campaign website are vague, including a tax plan that calls for a "fairer, simpler, and more equitable" system. On foreign policy, he's said, "all options should remain on the table when dealing with international bullies," such as Russian President Vladimir Putin.
Policy discussions are usually a welcome refuge for Bush, the former Florida governor. But his challenge Wednesday is less about highlighting his mastery of the issues and more about showing his supporters he has the temperament to fight through a long and grueling primary campaign.
"You've got a guy here speaking from experience, speaking with knowledge about issues, speaking with a reasonable approach to matters," said Pat Hickey, a Bush supporter from Nevada. "The problem, though, is, do those things seem to matter to the electorate?"
With a well-funded super PAC standing by, Bush doesn't appear to be on the brink of a campaign collapse. But a stronger debate performance could help soothe supporter anxiety.
Also on stage will be Ohio Gov. John Kasich, New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee, Kentucky Sen. Rand Paul and former technology executive Carly Fiorina. Each will be eager for the kind of standout moment that Fiorina had in the second debate to jumpstart her campaign.
The four lowest-polling candidates participated in an earlier undercard event: South Carolina Sen. Lindsay Graham, former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum, Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal and former New York Gov. George Pataki. None has gotten close to breaking into the upper tier of candidates.