Five things to look for at Wednesday night's GOP debate

Top GOP 2016 Candidates FNC

The venues for the first two Republican presidential debates made perfect sense. Cleveland is the site of next summer’s Republican National Convention; the Reagan Library is a shrine to America's pre-eminent conservative.

As for Boulder, Colo., the site of Wednesday night’s third GOP debate: It’s a college town whose voting-age population is five-sixths registered Democrats. The closest the University of Colorado gets to Republican vermilion would be the school’s dark-red roof tiles.

That said, presidential politics isn’t real estate. As long as there’s a hot mic, a satellite feed and Donald Trump to juice the ratings, location doesn’t matter.

About Wednesday’s festivities, which again include not one but two debates (candidates had to average 3 percent or higher in six national polls to qualify for the 8 p.m. ET session) here's what to look for:

A topic mostly overlooked in the first two debates, but taking center stage in round three: tax reform.

Money Talks.

As this is CNBC’s show, the evening will lack both Megyn Kelly’s prosecutorial intensity and Jake Tapper’s determination to irritate Trump.

A topic mostly overlooked in the first two debates, but taking center stage in round three: tax reform. For the 10 candidates, this is a soup-to-nuts menu: Jeb Bush’s plan to lower the top personal rate from 39.6 percent to 28 percent Marco Rubio weighs in at 35 percent, while eliminating estate and capital-gains taxes); Ben Carson’s 10 percent flat tax Rand Paul has it at 14.5 percent; Ted Cruz wanting to abolish the Internal Revenue Service; Trump (no Jolly Old Saint Nick, he) as the “Santa Claus” of the bunch.

You might want to divert your children’s attention. Nine other Republicans will be taking swings at Santa all night long on taxes, free trade, eminent domain and any other economy-related topic that might paint Trump as conservative-in-name-only.

Low (J)ebb.

George Costanza learned to always leave a room on a high note. By contrast, this debate offers a candidate entering the Coors Event Center at a decidedly low (J)ebb.

In the last week alone, Jeb Bush slashed his campaign’s payroll, hunkered down with his family to assess the health of his candidacy and got off track at a Nevada event promoting Hispanic upward mobility by commenting on the relative hotness of television’s “Supergirl.”

There’s a school of thought among some campaign observers that too much money has clouded Bush’s judgment: It gave him a false sense of security and it kept him from pressing grassroots activists with more urgency. A weak debate performance in Colorado, more trail gaffes and a further downward spiraling in the polls will have one benefit for Bush: There’ll be fewer donors to worry about offending.  

Gentle Ben.

Carson emerged Tuesday as the new front-runner nationally in the CBS News/New York Times poll thus undercutting Trump’s message (which would be words to this effect: “I lead in the polls because I’m great; I’m great because I lead in the polls”).

Trump wasted no time trying to reclaim the spotlight. In one tweet alone, last week he managed to insult Carson, the good people of Iowa and genetically modified corn. And he made mischief with Carson’s Seventh-day Adventist faith.

Let’s assume Trump takes another swing at Carson – and Bush and Rubio and Cruz and any other bystander. Will CNBC’s moderators give Carson the “front-runner treatment” and put him through a wringer of tough questions? In the previous two debates, Carson benefited from a large field and Trump’s oversized persona. It allowed him to say precious little – which, ironically, plays into his nonconformist brand. On Wednesday night, that might change.

Upstairs, Downstairs.

Think of this debate as candidates and escalators.

Going up: Rubio, though it’s not a textbook climb. Given Bush’s struggles, Rubio is fast emerging as the GOP establishment’s favorite to save the party from itself (translation: no Trump, no Carson, no Cruz).

But Rubio has yet to have a “signature” moment, other than a good kickoff speech and decent debate reviews. Can he do anything in Boulder that generates money, endorsements and genuine momentum?

Going down: Paul.

In theory, the libertarian Paul is the candidate most at home in Boulder. He’s counting on some 300 chapters of “Students for Rand” nationwide to deliver the vote. His problems: He barely survived the 3 percent debate cutoff, and his super PACs have underperformed.

Paul might want to ask how many in the Boulder crowd will be eligible to vote in next year’s Senate race in Kentucky. It’ll be the senator’s focus if and when he lays the presidential run to rest.

Enjoy the debate.

Bill Whalen is a research fellow at Stanford University's Hoover Institution, where he analyzes California and national politics. He also blogs daily on the 2016 election at Follow him on Twitter @hooverwhalen.