By Emily Stephenson and James Oliphant
MILWAUKEE/WASHINGTON (Reuters) - Republican presidential candidates take the stage in Milwaukee on Tuesday night in an economic themed debate with voters and donors looking to see if U.S. Senator Marco Rubio can produce another strong performance like the one he delivered two weeks ago.
Eight Republicans seeking the party's nomination for president in the November 2016 election will debate over a range of economic issues on Fox Business Network. It is a smaller field than three past debates after two candidates were bumped to the earlier, "undercard" forum.
Voters will watch how the candidates, including retired neurosurgeon Ben Carson and real estate magnate Donald Trump, handle detailed policy questions after criticism that their plans are too vague.
Rubio is under pressure to show he can fight off recent criticism of his experience and his stance on abortion, as he tries to unseat fellow Floridian Jeb Bush as the favorite of the party's establishment. Rubio has not led polls in any early voting state, and lags Bush and others in fund-raising. A strong performance could change that.
"Right now, the establishment money guys are wondering, if not Bush, then who?" said Saul Anuzis, a former chair of the Michigan Republican Party who is backing U.S. Senator Ted Cruz of Texas. “Rubio has to show the leadership establishment types that he would be a good alternative to Bush."
The last debate gave Rubio a high-profile boost and a flood of new donations.
But he has been dogged by criticism, much of it from the Bush camp, over missed Senate votes. Rubio's campaign recently released credit card records to fend off rumors he misused party funds while in Florida's legislature.
Front-runner Trump singled out Rubio by tweeting: "Marco Rubio is a total lightweight who I wouldn’t hire to run one of my smaller companies - a highly overrated politician!"
Bush supporters believe Rubio's opposition to abortion even for victims of rape or incest is too extreme.
But it is unclear how much focus those issues will get on Tuesday since the debate is supposed to be devoted to economic issues.
Bush, who has struggled to explain his policy proposals in a down-to-earth way, needs a steady performance to calm his supporters and show he still has a credible path to the nomination.
A TV ad by his Right to Rise Super PAC planned for key states emphasizes Bush's experience. "It's not about yapping, it's not about talking, it's about doing," he says in the ad.
(Reporting by James Oliphant and Erin McPike in Washington, and Emily Stephenson and Steve Holland in Milwaukee; Editing by Kevin Drawbaugh and Alistair Bell)