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4 things to look for in Wednesday’s Republican debate

Republican presidential candidates Chris Christie, Marco Rubio, Ben Carson, Scott Walker, Donald Trump, Jeb Bush, Mike Huckabee, Ted Cruz, Rand Paul, and John Kasich, left to right, take the stage for the first Republican presidential debate Aug. 6, 2015, in Cleveland, Ohio. The second debate on Wednesday, Sept. 15, 2015, will add Carly Fiorina to the lineup.
Republican presidential candidates Chris Christie, Marco Rubio, Ben Carson, Scott Walker, Donald Trump, Jeb Bush, Mike Huckabee, Ted Cruz, Rand Paul, and John Kasich, left to right, take the stage for the first Republican presidential debate Aug. 6, 2015, in Cleveland, Ohio. The second debate on Wednesday, Sept. 15, 2015, will add Carly Fiorina to the lineup. AP

Will Wednesday’s Republican presidential debate become the second episode of the Donald Trump show? Will retired neurosurgeon Ben Carson emerge as his principal rival? Or will the public start buzzing about someone else?

The two-hour debate at the Ronald Reagan Presidential Foundation and Library in Simi Valley, Calif., will begin at 8 p.m. EDT and feature the 11 candidates doing best in national polls as of Sept. 10. An earlier debate, starting at 6 p.m., will include the other prominent Republican candidates.

Here’s what to look for at the main event:

Will Trump remain the undisputed Republican star?

The outspoken real estate mogul retains a lead in party polls, gets attention others desperately want, and no matter how outrageous or offensive his remarks, remains popular. Carson has begun to surge in the polls. Can anyone else break through? Rivals need to find a way to bring Trump down, but that involves risk. If they point out where he’s been inconsistent, insulting and incorrect, will that trigger Trump’s outrage and endear him further with voters? Or should they let Trump be Trump, and figure that as voters get more serious about picking a president, they’ll look more for a statesman?

Who will emerge as the chief alternative to Trump?

Someone will eventually surface as the anti-Trump by appearing reasonable, thoughtful and nuanced, yet still display the sense of candor that has triggered the billionaire’s rise. Will it be Carson, whose quiet style has won him a sizable following and strong momentum, particularly among evangelical voters? Or John Kasich, the plainspoken, pragmatic governor of Ohio who’s quickly winning supporters in New Hampshire? Will more conservative candidates go after Kasich and notably Jeb Bush, the former Florida governor with the big campaign treasury, as too moderate? Also worth watching: Carly Fiorina, the former business executive. She shined in the non-prime time debate last month with her down-to-earth explanations of national security policy. This time she gets to play with the big hitters.

11% John Kasich’s showing in the Sept. 10-13 Monmouth University Polling Institute New Hampshire survey, good for third behind Trump and Carson.

Who will get lost in the crowd?

Time is running out for some prominent Republicans to show some political muscle. After Wednesday, the next nationally televised Republican debate doesn’t occur for six more weeks. The end of the current fundraising quarter is Sept. 30, so some of the big-name candidates need to use this debate to convince donors they’ve got a chance. Frustration is building. Chris Christie, the governor of New Jersey, joked that he was standing next to Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla., at the last debate, waiting for what seemed like an eternity to be noticed. “We’re looking at each other, going, ‘Are we still here?’’’ Christie recalled. Bush; Scott Walker, the governor of Wisconsin; and Sens. Rand Paul of Kentucky and Ted Cruz of Texas must have felt the same. Trouble is, if they interrupt to get a word in, a tactic Paul tried, they risk looking rude, pushy and un-presidential.

1.5% Chris Christie’s average showing in recent Iowa polls, according to RealClearPolitics.

Will the economy or national security get some serious attention?

Voters judge candidates not only on personality and gravitas, but on command of the issues. Since the last debate, Wall Street has endured some of its worst weeks in years, and Washington lawmakers are engaged in a bitter debate on the Iran nuclear deal. What kind of options on Iran will the candidates offer? Do they appear comfortable and well-informed discussing national security? What’s their plan to strengthen the economy? Republicans enjoy talking about tax-cutting, but voters have shown they want depth and understanding, too.

David Lightman: 202-383-6101, @lightmandavid

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