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Candidates All Face Challenges Heading Into Third GOP Debate

Carson has surged past Trump in polls in the early voting state of Iowa. (Frederic J. Brown/AFP/Getty Images)

The horse race that is the 2016 presidential campaign remains a long one. But Republican strategists maintain that several White House hopefuls have serious ground to cover in Wednesday's third GOP debate lest they get left behind in the dust.  

Virtually all the Republican strategists and consultants surveyed by CQ Roll Call had an opinion about what front-runners Donald Trump and Ben Carson could do to distance themselves from the rest of the field. Few seemed invested in what, if anything, those stuck at the “kids table” — that means you, Sen. Lindsey Graham of South Carolina and one-time Iowa caucus-winner Rick Santorum — could do to salvage their campaigns.  

Some believe all of the candidates still have something to prove.  

“This is an existentially challenging debate for everyone,” Florida-based Republican consultant Rick Wilson asserted.  

Donald Trump:  “Like everyone, I will be watching Trump, to see how he handles his first debate where he isn't leading ‘all of the polls,’ as he says,” said Cam Savage, a principal at Limestone Strategies who has led numerous campaigns in Indiana. “The big question: Is the air coming out of the Trump balloon?"  

Wilson concurred, suggesting the bombastic billionaire better buckle down and look past the low-hanging fruit.  

“Trump had a very bad night at the last debate and everybody knows it, so he’s gotta have a presidential performance at this debate, not just please the 25 percent of people on the Trump team already,” he said.  

Ed Martin, a St. Louis-based Republican who leads the conservative group Eagle Forum, wondered if Trump would be savvy enough to capitalize on all the chaos swirling around Capitol Hill.  

“I think the Boehner budget deal will get brutally beaten up, as it should,” he predicted.  

Ben Carson:  Following his ascent among evangelicals in the Hawkeye State, virtually everyone agrees the other candidates need to knock Carson back to earth ASAP.  

“Carson sort of has this [former Arkansas Gov. Mike] Huckabee-esque appeal from eight years ago when nobody knew what to do with the guy because he was so well liked and it was tough to pounce on him,” said an Iowa-based strategist with ties to current congressional campaigns.  

The campaign vet advised Huckabee to make a move, prodding the trailing candidate to “throw a bomb right in the heart of Carson world and start to raise questions about him because everyone on the right has a Carson problem now and somebody needs to bite the bullet.”  

Jeb Bush:  Republican consultant Jason Roe, who has managed and advised congressional campaigns, including that of former House Majority Leader Tom DeLay, as well as serving as Mitt Romney's deputy campaign manager in 2007, said just playing defense is not an option for Bush.  

“With some pretty bad headlines and sagging poll numbers, can he do something to reassure his supporters that he is in this to win? Can he make the case to GOP voters that he can beat Hillary Clinton?” Roe outlined.  

Chris Christie: Martin held out little hope for a big splash from the Garden State Republican. “I think Christie probably tries to shine but fails, and may quit,” he predicted.  

Ted Cruz:  The Iowa-based consultant suspects Cruz is happier operating in the shadows.  

“I got reports that he’s door knocking in Des Moines so he’s quietly organizing,” the political observer said. “He’s looking to not tip the boat and relying on Trump to do his dirty work.”  

Carly Fiorina:  The consensus is that the winner of the second debate needs to prove she is not “a one-hit wonder.”  

“There’s no reason to fear Fiorina because after that last debate performance, she shot up nationally as a superstar, but she came back to earth almost as quickly as she rose. I don’t see where anybody’s really going to care if she does well,” our guy in Iowa posited.  

Marco Rubio:  Rokk Solutions co-founder Brian Walsh urged Rubio to strike at will.  

“Trump is acting like a wounded animal with his dropping poll numbers in Iowa so I expect he will aggressively go after Carson. While those two engage each other Rubio and Bush should demonstrate their sharp grasp of foreign and domestic policy issues to draw a sharp contrast between the two presumed front-runners,” he advised, adding that someone needs to “expose Trump for the carnival barker that he is while demonstrating their own serious leadership.”  

As for the rest: Wilson suggested they go hard or go home.  

“We need to narrow this field down,” he said.  

Emily Cahn, Simone Pathé and Eli Yokley contributed to this report. Related: Marco Rubio's Long Senate Goodbye Carson's Anti-Gay Stance Stops With Campaign Consultant Why the Next Month Is Critical for Bush Rubio, Trump Begin to Spar Over Eminent Domain GOP Debate: Fiorina’s Breakout Performance at Trump’s Expense Roll Call Race Ratings Map: Ratings for Every House and Senate Race in 2016 Get breaking news alerts and more from Roll Call in your inbox or on your iPhone.