ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:
The Republican presidential race was already raucous. Now it's getting even more so. After months of dominating the polls, Donald Trump's lead is at risk. The retired neurosurgeon Ben Carson is seriously challenging him. Jeb Bush's campaign is showing signs of struggle, and that sets the backdrop for the latest GOP presidential debate happening tonight in Boulder, Colo. The lower-tier candidates held their matchup earlier tonight. The main event is still to come, and NPR political reporter Sarah McCammon is here in the studio with a preview. Hey, Sarah.
SARAH MCCAMMON, BYLINE: Hi, Ari.
SHAPIRO: OK. One person who pays very close attention to polls and talks about them a lot is Donald Trump. And now some of those polls show Ben Carson edging him out. How do you except him to respond to that?
MCCAMMON: Right. On the stump, you know, Donald Trump loves to remind everybody at his campaign rallies that he is winning, that he is at the top. And that is not true in the same way anymore, and he's had kind of a hard time figuring out how to hit back at Ben Carson.
You know, Carson is generally seen as a pretty soft-spoken, likable guy - low-key styles that's pretty much the opposite of Trump's style. And you know, out on the campaign trail, people like him. Whether they agree with him or not, they seem to like his style. So Trump has been raising questions about Carson's faith over the weekend in Jacksonville. He talked about his faith as a Seventh-day Adventist and said, I don't know what that is.
But we should point out, that's a sect of Christianity that, you know, maybe isn't especially well known, but it doesn't seem to be a big problem for Carson, especially with evangelicals - a really key voting block in the GOP. There are a lot of similarities be between many evangelicals faith and Seventh-day Adventists. And again, voters on the Republican side seem to like Ben Carson. He's doing well with them.
SHAPIRO: So there's the Trump-Carson dynamic. This is still such a crowded Republican field. Who else has a lot at stake tonight?
MCCAMMON: Certainly Jeb Bush. He still hasn't managed to breakout. His campaign is struggling. He's been slashing staff salaries and kind of refocusing on New Hampshire. So he actually has slipped a bit in the polls and will be farther out visually on the stage tonight - so not a great visual for him. Also Carly Fiorina, you know - she was kind of the star of the last debate last month but hasn't really gotten the same level of attention since then.
SHAPIRO: I also want to talk to you about Marco Rubio, the senator from Florida. A New York Times columnist called him a front-runner who has never led in a national poll and is not cleaning up endorsements or raking in cash. Any chance Rubio will have a breakout night tonight?
MCCAMMON: You know, he is going to be now closer to the center of that stage because he's been moving up in the polls, and so he'll be physically upstaging Bush. But he needs to stand out, and I think, in a lot of voters' minds, he needs to try to fill that niche of the establishment candidate, sort of replacing what many people thought Bush would be. So he needs to stand out and do that tonight. He's starting to see more support, but with that also comes more scrutiny. We saw that with Carly Fiorina after her last debate performance - more scrutiny of her records. So you know, that may be hurting her, and it could hurt Rubio.
SHAPIRO: As you talk about scrutiny of Rubio, he's been criticized for his attendance record in the Senate. Do you expect that to be a main line of criticism in the debate tonight?
MCCAMMON: You know, it could be. It's been a lingering issue for him for a while. And just recently his - a newspaper in his home state of Florida, "The Sun Sentinal," called on him to resign his Senate seat, pointing out that he has the worst attendance record this year in the Senate. And he himself has essentially said that campaigning for president is more important for his state than showing up for some of those Senate votes.
So yeah - watch tonight. See if other candidates attack him on that issue, especially fellow senators like Ted Cruz and Rand Paul who've made a point of taking on the Senate from the inside and, you know, literally standing up to filibuster or give long speeches, at least, about issues like government surveillance and Obamacare.
SHAPIRO: That's NPR's Sarah McCammon, who will be watching the debate tonight along with me over Thai food. Sarah, save some for me.
MCCAMMON: All right.
SHAPIRO: See you soon.
MCCAMMON: Will do. See you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.