BOULDER, COLORADO - Buckle up and settle in for two Republican debates tonight on CNBC: The one-hour "undercard" event starts at 6pm ET, featuring Bobby Jindal, Lindsey Graham, Rick Santorum and George Pataki, followed by the main event at 8pm ET. Despite featuring ten candidates on stage, the primetime forum will last just two hours, a concession demanded and won by Donald Trump and Ben Carson -- the men with the most to lose in this format. Since the CNN/SRN debate in California last month, the dynamics of the race have shifted a bit. After leading virtually every national and state-level poll for months, Donald Trump finds himself slipping into second place in a pair of new nationwide surveys, as well as in a flurry of Iowa polling. Trump has responded by ripping the same polls he once touted as evidence of his unstoppable juggernaut, sharpening his attacks on Carson's issue stances, demeanor and religion, and quasi-jokingly attacking Republican voters. Here he is at an Iowa rally obsessing on his diminished polling position:
"What the hell are you people doing to me?
Lest his competition prematurely conclude that the boomlet is finally deflating, Trump appears to be stepping up his organizational ground game, parlaying large crowds into a turnout machine. Carson, who's taken a laid back approach to campaigning, has surged significantly, riding a wave of Republican appreciation for his unapologetic political incorrectness. Some of his stark historical analogies are perhaps more apt than others. How will he adapt to the scrutiny that accompanies frontrunner status? And how will he respond if Trump steps up his personal barbs in a face-to-face setting? Tonight's debate is focused on the economy and will likely address topics on which Carson has struggled to handle in media interviews. Has he done more homework? As for the rest of the field, several flagging candidates have signaled that they're angling to make waves to drum up attention. A "fed up" John Kasich is vowing to get feisty, while Rand Paul will lead what will surely be a chorus of opprobrium for the awful budget deal struck by Congressional leaders. (Side note: Soon-to-be-Speaker Paul Ryan, mystifyingly, decided to support the agreement). Come to think of it, you'd be hard-pressed to conceive of a political moment more suited to Ted Cruz's anti-"Washington Cartel" message; he'll be loaded for bear, but will he exploit the moment effectively? He's a skilled debater who hasn't managed to break through in the first two outings.
Chris Christie has also been running a #DearDC stop-the-dysfunction campaign, but part of his solution is demanding that leaders step up and hammer out tough compromises. How will he thread that messaging needle on the budget deal, and will he be prepared if a moderator drills down on the economic realities facing his home state of New Jersey? Carly Fiorina excelled in Cleveland and Simi Valley, enjoying a richly-earned burst of support that has since faded into the mid-single digits. Can she possibly replicate her dominating performances and recapture needed momentum? Marco Rubio is under fire from a large newspaper in his home state over his missed votes (ahem) in the Senate, not that he's likely to mind. Positioning himself as disgusted and detached from the Washington mess isn't a bad look for the outgoing Senator, who's pulled into third place nationally. Rubio's brand is the likable, youthful, informed, potential consensus pick who'd draw the sharpest contrast with Hillary Clinton. His campaign released a video this week that doesn't mention any other candidate by name, but virtually screams, "can you imagine Hillary trying to do this?"
Last but not least (Mike Huckabee will also participate tonight), there's Jeb Bush. The establishment titan looks disoriented and frustrated on the trail, where his "joyful" campaign is sputtering. Many of his policy proposals are smart and conservative, but he's not resonating with voters. He's relied disproportionately heavily on high-dollar contributors to fill his deep campaign coffers, but many in the donor class may be anxiously eyeing the "eject" button as some in the media are already writing Jeb's political obituary. Another lackluster debate performance could be catastrophic. If you're a fan of American politics, today's a big one. A new Speaker of the House, a major budget deal with lots of moving parts and strange bedfellows, and two presidential debates. I'll leave you with some perfectly Trumpian pre-whining:
UPDATE - A new YouGov poll has Trump comfortably ahead in the national GOP race.