With Ted Cruz soaring to a 10pt lead in Iowa, Chris Christie gaining momentum in New Hampshire, Ben Carson losing some ground, Marco Rubio gaining in some polls and holding steady in others, Jeb Bush teetering along, and Donald Trump still dominating in most state and national polls, Tuesday’s CNN debate should be interesting.

Nine candidates will take the stage and be positioned according to their current standing in national polls.

CNN reports:

Nine candidates will appear in prime-time Tuesday night for the final Republican presidential primary debate of 2015, a critical event that will help shape the contest heading into the Iowa caucuses.

Businessman Donald Trump, the front-runner for the nomination, will again be center stage flanked by retired neurosurgeon Ben Carson on his right and Texas Sen. Ted Cruz on his left, CNN announced Sunday. The six remaining participants in the prime time contest will be Florida Sen. Marco Rubio, former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush, businesswoman Carly Fiorina, New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, Ohio Gov. John Kasich, and Kentucky Sen. Rand Paul.

Here’s CNN’s graphic:


Note that while there was some speculation as to whether Rand Paul would make the prime time debate, he did so, and Christie also made the cut this time.  The earlier debate—at 6 p.m. EST—will feature four candidates:  Mike Huckabee, Rick Santorum, Lindsey Graham, and George Pataki.

The prime time debate will be moderated by Wolf Blitzer, Dana Bash, and Hugh Hewitt.

So what might we expect with regards to the field (or at least the top of the field)?

Donald Trump

He’s a mixture of teflon and backbone, and while he’s not shone in any of the debates and is unlikely to do so in this one, we might see him take a shot or two at Cruz.  The moderators are unlikely to skip mentioning Cruz’s comments regarding Trump’s judgment and Trump’s comeback that echoed Cruz’s own challenge to Obama, so he’ll have the floor to speak his mind.  He will undoubtedly be influenced by the news that Cruz is now polling significantly ahead of him in Iowa, so we may see some sparks fly.

He will, of course, be asked about his proposed temporary halt to Muslims entering the country, and there may be a “raise your hand if you agree with Trump” moment.

Over all, though, I don’t expect there to be much there there.

Trump needs a strong debate because he needs to show he’s not Hitler and because Cruz is gaining on him in a very real way.

Ted Cruz

For his part, Cruz is working hard to stay on good terms with Trump, and this will continue into and throughout the debate.  If CNN hopes for a Trump v. Cruz “cage match,” they will be disappointed.

Cruz will be asked about his comments about Trump’s judgment and the attacks by Rubio on NSA data collection, and hopefully substantive questions on a range of issues from national security, to jobs, to his tax plan, to the war on terror.  This isn’t CNBC, so we may get something more than we did during that abysmal debate performance by those moderators.

Cruz needs a strong debate because he is doing so well and needs to continue his momentum by showing that he’s both the “anti-Trump” and the real conservative (as opposed to Rubio, for instance).

Ben Carson

He’s a calm, polite, steady man, and the debate format is not his strong suit.  I don’t expect a whole lot from him during the upcoming debate, though he will probably try to stand out in foreign policy and on terror given his falling poll numbers and recent trip to Jordan.

Carson needs a strong debate . . . for obvious reasons.

Marco Rubio

Like Cruz, Rubio presents himself well and is articulate, particularly on matters of foreign policy and the threats of Islamic terrorism here at home.  Recent public attention on these issues is helping him a great deal because no one is currently asking him about the Schumer-Rubio amnesty bill that came from the Gang of Eight discussions.  This may come up in the debate (particularly if he takes jabs at Cruz).

Rubio needs a strong debate to show potential donors that he can take Jeb’s place as their preferred candidate and to break out of the 10%ish area in which he’s been stuck for so long.

Jeb Bush

Jeb is horrible at debates, and I don’t expect that to change this time around.  He’s uncomfortable on the stage and seems unsure of himself and a bit defensive.  If he can overcome these tendencies and avoid trying to engage Trump, Cruz, or Rubio, he’ll have a good debate.  If, however, he attempts to take shots at these three candidates in particular, they’ll wipe the floor with him (again).

Jeb needs a strong debate to show donors that they’re not throwing good money after bad.

Chris Christie

Christie’s momentum in New Hampshire is putting the swagger back in Christie’s step; he’s visibly more confident and . . . well, blustery and self-righteous.  Some people like that, as evidenced by his poll numbers in New Hampshire.

If they’re smart, Christie and Jeb will try to tag-team Trump, Rubio, and Cruz (that’s the only way Jeb stands a chance), but that has its drawbacks because Christie still has to sound like a conservative during the primaries.  He’s not completely comfortable with that role, so he’ll be interesting to watch.

Christie needs a strong debate to show that he’s a better choice than Rubio as the “new Jeb.”

And the rest

Fiorina, Kasich, and Rand may try to have a stand out moment.

However, Fiorina’s momentum waxes and wanes too much, so any moment she has will have to be spectacular for it to have a lasting impression on primary voters. Fiorina needs a strong debate to regain the momentum she had over the summer.

Kasich will do what he does (to me he sounds like a Democrat most of the time). Kasich needs a strong debate, but he’s just going to ramble on like the annoying relative who won’t shut up at dinner.

As for Rand, while he had a good debate last time (the CBS debate), he’s feeling the pressure of the increased focus on foreign policy and terrorism.  This brings out the worst in him, and he can become a bit shrill and whiny.  Rand needs a strong debate because he’s barely hanging on right now and needs to change that.

This will be final GOP debate of 2015, and I have to admit that I’m looking forward to it and hope that it will be substantive on issues . . . as well as a bit entertaining as we watch the candidates strive to stand out and either hold their ground or make some substantial gains.