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Politics & Government

8 GOP Candidates Prepare To Debate On Main Stage In Milwaukee

AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

After a near revolt against the TV networks and debate moderators, Republican candidates are back on stage again, this time for the primary debates in Milwaukee. For the first time, fewer than 10 candidates will be on the main debate stage. The number of second-tier debaters is down to just four. NPR's Don Gonyea is in Milwaukee, Wis., covering it for us. And Don, the stage is going to have a little bit more breathing room - eight lecterns in a row instead of the usual 10 or 11. What kind of effect might that have?

DON GONYEA, BYLINE: Elbow room, I guess. They'll each get a little bit more time to talk. That's significant. But it might also create a false impression that the field is being winnowed down, and it hasn't. Remember, only Scott Walker has dropped out, and that's been a couple of months. The reason there are fewer on the stage is because the criteria was tougher.

In the past, it's basically been finish in the top 10 or 11 based on the polls, and you make the big stage. This time, the main stage was reserved for those who get 2-and-a-half percent support in an average of four national polls. And only eight made that cut.

CORNISH: Meanwhile, the rest of the candidates are in the preliminary debate - governors Chris Christie and Bobby Jindal, former governor Mike Huckabee and former senator Rick Santorum. Any highlights so far?

GONYEA: Well, the focus has been mostly jobs, taxes, the economy. So too, though, have the records of some of the candidates on the stage, especially the governors. There's been some back and forth between them over their records, and a target has been, repeatedly, Chris Christie. Particularly Bobby Jindal has gone after him on that score. But listen to how Christie responds. Give it a listen.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

CHRIS CHRISTIE: The bottom line is - believe me - Hillary Clinton's coming for your wallet, everybody. Don't worry about Huckabee or Jindal. Worry about her.

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GONYEA: In fact, on multiple questions on multiple topics, Christie invoked the specter of a President Hillary Clinton in his answers.

CORNISH: Don, after the last debate, there were major complaints from the campaigns about the substance of questions and the moderators. Republicans were very upset about how the last debate, hosed by CNBC, went down. Have you seen any changes?

GONYEA: There was a lot of talk about changing the rules, but the campaigns couldn't agree on exactly how to do that. So we proceed without any official changes. But I can tell you the moderators tonight are being watched very closely. They're from the Fox Business Network and The Wall Street Journal. Topics are also being watched. Listen. Early in this debate, the moderator did ask one of them which Democrat these Republicans admire. The question was at first mocked, and then it was dodged, dodged by everyone.

CORNISH: I want to get back to that main stage and some of the key players, what they'll be facing and what they hope to accomplish, starting with Ben Carson, who, of course, is the new frontrunner.

GONYEA: Ben Carson has, in recent days, done something very uncharacteristic. Questions have arisen about the accuracy of some of the details of his inspiring life story. And he has pushed back very hard, very angrily. He's accused the media of being out to get him. He may have to answer those questions again tonight, especially if Donald Trump goes after him on this. Trump has done that already on the campaign trail. And it really is Carson's first time in the hot seat on such a big stage.

CORNISH: Speaking of Donald Trump, you say that he's kind of moved to the background at the last two debates. What does he need to do tonight?

GONYEA: Yeah. He has not stood out in the past couple of debates. And you are going to hold these words against me at some point, but I am going to say Donald Trump really does kind of need to reassert himself and not be a, dare I say, wallflower. So look for Trump to be more of a presence.

CORNISH: And no candidate tonight probably has more at stake than Jeb Bush, right?

GONYEA: Yes. He's struggled in each and every one of these debates. In some ways, he's been a non-presence. He's attacked Marco Rubio, his rival and former protege, and it's backfired. So it's important that he step up. And for Rubio, Rubio's been getting a lot of attention and a lot of buzz. Rubio has to adjust to that, and he may get questions about his use in the past of a Republican Party credit card when he was speaker of the House in Florida.

CORNISH: That's NPR's Don Gonyea. Don, thanks so much.

GONYEA: It's my pleasure. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.