After a weekend of jokes from Donald Trump, defiance from Ben Carson and financial disclosures from Marco Rubio, the campaigns of the three men perched atop the Republican presidential field are each claiming momentum heading into Tuesday night’s fourth GOP debate.
Trump, fresh from his hosting gig on NBC’s “Saturday Night Live,” spent part of Sunday crowing about driving the sketch comedy show to its highest ratings in nearly four years. The longtime GOP front-runner may have seen his lead over Carson shrink — or even disappear — in some recent polls, but Trump held his own on the live broadcast, gamely poking fun at his own image and trading quips with comics who have, in some cases, spent years mocking and skewering the billionaire real estate developer.
The performance didn’t win any rave reviews: the New York Times called the episode “anemic” and the Washington Post dismissed the effort as “halfhearted.” Trump, however, jubilantly noted on Twitter that his appearance, according to overnight ratings, drew almost twice as many viewers — an estimated 16 million — as the Miley Cyrus- hosted season premiere that featured Democratic presidential front-runner Hillary Clinton.
While Trump made SNL, at least for a night, must-see viewing, Carson was fending off hard-hitting questions about his biography. The retired neurosurgeon, who is running neck-and-neck with Trump at almost 25 percent each in the latest Real Clear Politics average of national polls, went on the offensive after reports he had misrepresented whether he had been offered, as a young man, a “scholarship” to attend the U.S. Military Academy at West Point.
On ABC’s “This Week,” the 64-year-old candidate defended his use of the word scholarship to describe overtures from officials who encouraged him to attend the military school, calling a report in Politico questioning the story a “political hit job.”
Carson also pushed back against CNN and the Wall Street Journal, which ran additional stories questioning details in the candidate’s 1990 autobiography, “Gifted Hands.” On Twitter, Carson boasted Saturday that supporters had rallied to him as a result of the reports and had made “10,000 donations each day this week, raising $33.5M this week alone. Thank you biased media.”
While Carson scrambled to turn his combative week with the press into a selling point with GOP voters, Trump poured gasoline on the questions surrounding his rival, telling “This Week,” “It’s a strange situation when you talk about hitting your mother on the head with the hammer … It’s a weird deal going on.”
Trump also made time Sunday for a jab at another GOP rival, Sen. Marco Rubio, who is running third, at 12.3 percent, in the latest Reuters 5-Day Rolling Poll. Trump shared with his 4.7 million Twitter followers a link to a story featuring a quote from the Senate’s No. 2 Democrat, Chuck Schumer, in which the New York lawmaker says Rubio’s “fingerprints are all over” a 2013 immigration overhaul that included a path to citizenship.
On the campaign trail, Trump has used Rubio’s role in pushing the immigration bill, which died in the House, to accuse the Florida lawmaker of supporting “amnesty” — a charge that has been a drag on Rubio with some conservative voters.
But Rubio is starting to pick up steam in the polls, especially in New Hampshire, and backers contend the lawmaker effectively put to rest lingering questions about the use from 2005 to 2006 of a party credit card by releasing records that, supporters say, clear Rubio of any accusations of impropriety.
Rubio, who has seen his support grow after taking down his mentor-turned-rival, former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush, in last month’s CNBC debate in Colorado, needs another strong performance Tuesday night in Wisconsin if he hopes to elevate himself into the top tier with Carson and Trump.
Tuesday’s debate, focused on jobs, taxes and the economy, will be held in Milwaukee and broadcast on the Fox Business Network. The stage will be less crowded than in recent debates: Only the top eight candidates will take part in the prime-time event, down from 10 in the Oct. 28 debate in Colorado and 11 on CNN in September.
In addition to Bush, Rubio, Carson and Trump, the Milwaukee event will include Texas Sen. Ted Cruz, Kentucky Sen. Rand Paul, Ohio Gov. John Kasich and former tech firm CEO Carly Fiorina.
The network invited four candidates who were drawing less than 2.5 percent support in the average of four recent national polls — New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal, former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee and former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum — to participate in a 7 p.m. under card.
South Carolina Sen. Lindsey Graham, former New York Gov. George Pataki and former Virginia Gov. Jim Gilmore missed the cut.