BY CHUCK TODD, MARK MURRAY and LEIGH ANN CALDWELL, NBC News
(NBC News) - Tonight's third GOP presidential debate of the cycle is a big moment for the major candidates -- because it comes at an inflection point in the Republican race, and because the first contest in Iowa is now less than 100 days from now. And not surprisingly, you have a lot of desperate candidates on the stage. Here's our viewer's guide on what each GOP candidate needs to do at tonight's main debate, which takes place here at the University of Colorado starting at 8:00 pm ET:
Donald Trump: No longer first in all of the state or national polls, can Trump actually handle losing? Last night's rally in Iowa was, well, interesting: He almost begged the voters to improve his poll position. "Iowa, will you get your numbers up, please?" he said, per NBC's Ali Vitali. "Will you get these numbers up? I promise you I will do such a good job." Ben Carson: Now maybe your new frontrunner in the GOP race, can Carson hold up to the scrutiny, tougher questions, and incoming from rivals that are surely coming his way? Jeb Bush: As we wrote earlier this week, no one on tonight's stage is under more pressure to deliver than Bush is. We are approaching make-or-break time for the former GOP frontrunner. Marco Rubio: After two earlier solid performances, Rubio comes into tonight's debate as arguably the GOP establishment's new favorite -- and after some rough news coverage about his day job as a U.S. senator. In fact, the Florida Sun-Sentinel called on him to resign if he longer is casting votes." If you hate your job, senator, follow the honorable lead of House Speaker John Boehner and resign it. Let us elect someone who wants to be there and earn an honest dollar for an honest day's work." Wow. Don't be surprised if some GOP candidates not named Jeb (John Kasich, Chris Christie) go after Rubio here. John Kasich: Can the Ohio governor deliver on his "Bulworth"/Howard Beale moment of sorts yesterday? "What has happened to our party? What has happened to the conservative movement?" he asked at a rally in Ohio. Carly Fiorina: She was arguably the star of the last GOP debate, but has since retreated into obscurity. Can she prove she still belongs on the main stage? Ted Cruz: Can he actually be a PRESENCE at tonight's debate -- after largely being overshadowed in the previous two? He can no longer wait for the campaign to come to him. Chris Christie: Speaking of big presences, we're approaching desperation time for Chris Christie, whose poll numbers remain stuck in the single digits. At the previous debate, he clawed and fought like it might be his last one. He'll have to have the same attitude tonight. Rand Paul: It's desperation time for the Kentucky senator, too. And tonight's debate comes a day after Paul promised to filibuster the recently concluded budget deal. But there's just one small hitch, per NBC's Frank Thorp: The rules will allow him to speak for just one hour, and only more than that if another senator yields him time. Bottom line: It won't be a situation where he gets to speak for hours-on-end. Mike Huckabee: The best debater of the 2008 cycle has become almost an afterthought in the previous two debates. Can Huckabee finally seize a moment tonight? GOP establishment: Mad as hell and not going to take it anymore? There's another fascinating storyline hovering over tonight's debate: It appears the GOP establishment is striking back at the conservative base. There was Kasich yesterday: "Do you know how crazy this election is? Let me tell you something. I've about had it with these people," obviously referring to Carson and Trump. There was Jeb Bush last weekend in South Carolina: "If this election is about how we're going to fight to get nothing done, then I don't want to have any part of it. I don't want to be elected president to just sit around and see gridlock become so dominant that people are literally in decline in their lives." There's John Boehner resigning his speakership and cutting a budget deal with President Obama. And even take yesterday's House vote approving the Export-Import bank, which seemed to represent the GOP establishment striking back at the conservative base. The question we have is whether these words and actions are simply a primal scream of frustration? Or if they represent a turning point? One thing is clear: The establishment no longer looks afraid of the Tea Party/Freedom Caucus.
Undercard debate starts at 6:00 pm ET: One final word on tonight's GOP debate, which is being broadcast by our friends at CNBC: The undercard debate -- featuring Rick Santorum, Lindsey Graham, Bobby Jindal, and George Pataki -- begins at 6:00 pm ET. The undercard debate will last an hour, while the main debate (starting at 8:00 pm ET) will last two hours.
How negative does Bernie go against Hillary? It's certainly a question we have after reading this New York Times piece: "After weeks of inching toward a more aggressive posture against Mrs. Clinton, Mr. Sanders is now walking a fine line: He is trying to draw sharp contrasts between their records, yet not attack her on a personal level. He questions her political shifts on the Keystone XL oil pipeline, the Pacific Rim free trade deal and same-sex marriage rights, for instance, while trying to avoid impugning her honesty and judgment, a favorite Republican tactic." More: "But to raise doubts about her could also undermine what many voters like about Mr. Sanders: that he says he abhors the ugly side of politics and will avoid it even if it costs him the campaign." It's clear that Team Sanders didn't appreciate the Clinton camp playing the sexist card at the Jefferson-Jackson dinner. But does Bernie take the bait?
Paul Ryan to support budget deal: Finally, Speaker-to-be Paul Ryan issued a statement this morning saying that he will support the budget deal that outgoing Speaker John Boehner struck with the White House and congressional Democrats. "As with any budget agreement, this one has some good, some bad, and some ugly. It does include meaningful reforms to strengthen our safety net programs, including significant changes to bolster Social Security. It would allow us to return to regular order in our budget process. And it would mean our men and women in uniform have the resources they need to carry out their mission… What has been produced will go a long way toward relieving the uncertainty hanging over us, and that's why I intend to support it." Ryan's support makes sense: He has to keep the folks who take the tough votes in line. But how will the Freedom Caucus react?