As the 14 remaining candidates for the Republican Nomination line up in Colorado for their third TV debate, Paul Krishnamurty notes four angles with the potential to dominate headlines and impact the race.
"Primary voters take the election very seriously. They will ultimately want more than boasting and personal insults. Trump's one-dimensional tactics backfired with Fiorina and he could live to regret going after his current closest rival Ben Carson's energy and religion."
1) Is this the night Donald Trump's abuse wears thin?
With less than 100 days until the Iowa Caucus, the race to be Republican Nominee continues to defy convention, expert opinion and the wishes of the party elite. Few expected 14 candidates to still be on the stage for Wednesday's third TV debate, live on CNBC. Even fewer expected Donald Trump would remain the clear front-runner.
These two developments are related. Trump's unique, brash, entertaining persona has inevitably dominated coverage and, with such a huge number of opponents, the rest have struggled to be noticed.
If they're lucky, Trump attacks them and the viewers remember their comeback. When Carly Fiorina took him down for mocking her appearance, it was the highlight of the last debate. If they're unlucky, they struggle to get any memorable airtime and are forgotten. That goes a long way to explaining Scott Walker's sudden demise and John Kasich's recent poll slide.
Watch Donald Trump's attack on Carly Fiorina backfire in the last debate. Whose turn will it be on Wednesday?
However we must wonder how long this can go on. Primary voters take the election very seriously. They will ultimately want more than boasting and personal insults. Trump's one-dimensional tactics backfired with Fiorina and he could live to regret going after his current closest rival Ben Carson's energy and religion over the weekend.
Whatever his politics, Carson's articulate, gentlemanly demeanour has played a big part in his shock rise. It reinforces his brand as an outsider, above the partisan, gridlocked Washington class. By not rising to the bait, Carson will play well with viewers. Trump, on the other hand, needs to find a new tack.
2) Can Jeb Bush turn his flagging campaign around?
The term 'death spiral' has been applied to the Bush campaign in recent days and his odds on Betfair are in freefall. From around 35% when I laid out seven reasons why he won't be the nominee a month ago, Bush is now rated only a 15% chance at 6.25/1. The news that he's cutting spending and staff, following an expensive ad campaign that yielded zero polling dividends has caused further damage.
No longer the market front-runner or necessarily the choice of big donors, Bush needs to gamble. Everyone knows he can do policy detail but this week in Colorado, he needs to finally connect with the voters. Expect him to deride Trumpism and question chief rival Marco Rubio's experience.
3) Can anyone land a blow on Marco Rubio?
Though he still lags well behind Trump and Carson, Rubio is now standout favourite on Betfair, rated 30% likely to be the candidate at 3.39/4. Heavyweight, articulate performances in both debates, avoiding Trump's game, have helped him usurp Bush, his one-time mentor in Florida.
Nobody has really gone after Rubio yet and that will surely now change. Expect his rivals to attack his relatively liberal immigration policy, inexperience and Senate attendance. It remains to be seen if any of that will hurt this strong, confident candidate.
4) Will Carly Fiorina shine again in this format?
There's no question who the star of the first two debates was. Fiorina started as an unknown on the undercard debate and earned her place on the main stage with an overwhelming victory. Once there for the second debate, she again stole the headlines, considerably boosting her profile and poll ratings.
An outsider from the business world who has never held office, Fiorina lacks a big campaign machine or a stack of endorsements. However she has attracted plenty of donations in recent weeks and is doing well enough to survive at least through to New Hampshire, where she could be competitive. Another good performance is absolutely essential, but don't bet against it.