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4 things to look for in tonight’s Republican debate

September 16, 2015

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The roller coaster ride that has been the Republican nomination fight rumbles into primetime again tonight, as the top 11 candidates will face off in a CNN debate. Since their first confrontation, on Fox News last month, we’ve seen one candidate drop out (RIP, Rick Perry), one candidate surge in the early caucus state of Iowa (Ben Carson), and one candidate continue to grab nearly all of the headlines (Donald Trump, obviously.)

With voting in Iowa and New Hampshire just around five months away, here are four things to look out for in tonight’s debate that could have a big impact on the polls:

  1. Bush will get pressed on his tax plan

Last week, Jeb Bush released a paper detailing his plan for overhauling the tax code. Given that this, along with Trump’s immigration plan and Scott Walker’s plan on public employee’s unions (more on that below), is one of the few real policy papers put out thus far, we can expect that both the moderators and the other candidates will find ways to go after Bush on the issue. Fortune’s Tory Newmyer looked at some of the potential problems with the plan last week, and our Dan Primack today points out that it puts private equity in the crosshairs, appearing to borrow a page from Obama’s 2012 proposal in the process. Bush’s fellow candidates could make the claim that he is attacking wealth — rarely a good look for a Republican — especially one like Bush, who depends so much on corporate and establishment support.

  1. Walker talks unions

Scott Walker, struggling to regain traction in the polls, likewise introduced some grist into the Republican conversation with his pitch for hobbling public-sector unions. His battle with labor in Wisconsin made Walker a national name, and his proposal promises to “give power to the people, not the union bosses.” Though it may not play as well during a general election, fighting against organized labor is red meat to a conservative electorate. Look for Walker to try to talk about this plan as much as possible, and for some other candidates — especially New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, who’s also made hay as a union buster — to try to latch on.

  1. Trump and Fiorina face off

As I wrote yesterday, the biggest personal battle tonight will likely between the two candidates with the strongest business background — Trump and Carly Fiorina. Fiorina catapulted into the conversation, and onto the main debate stage, after a strong performance in the “JV” debate last month. She’s distinguished herself in part by landing punches on Trump, evidently ruffling the front-runner, something higher-profile contenders have struggled to do. And her backers transformed Trump’s sexist retort — criticizing Fiorina’s appearance, according to a recent Rolling Stone story — into a triumphant ad for the only woman in the field. Look for these two to battle for the “I’m not a politician” spotlight (along with Ben Carson, who has also been gaining in the polls.) This could get ugly, which should make for excellent television.

  1. Foreign policy could be a difference maker

So far, this election cycle has focused a lot on domestic policy — immigration, taxes, and funding for Planned Parenthood, to name a few. But with all that’s going on in the world (think: the continued fight against ISIS, the battle over the Iran nuclear deal, and the ever-present specter of more power struggles with Russia), look for foreign policy to be a major issue tonight and beyond. From a reemerging neoconservative faction containing both Lindsay Graham and Jeb Bush to the relative isolationism of Rand Paul, expect some real debates about how potential candidates would lead globally. This could end up being harmful to neophytes like Fiorina, Trump and Carson, all of whom have minimal experience in this realm.