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Gotcha Questions, Credit Cards, and Autobiographies: What to Watch for in Tonight's Republican Debate

Ben Carson and Marco Rubio are stepping onto the debate stage in the midst of recent scrutiny over their past.

by Olivia Becker
Nov 10 2015, 5:25pm

Photo via Alan Diaz/AP

VICE News is providing live coverage during tonight's Republican presidential debate, starting at 9pm ET. Don't forget to tune in for minute-to-minute coverage, analysis, and commentary throughout the evening.

The most recent host of Saturday Night Live, someone who may or may not have lied about stabbing another person, and a guy who charged $22,000 in personal expenses to the Florida Republican party's credit card are getting together tonight in Milwaukee. No, it's not a reality television reunion special —it's the fourth Republican presidential debate.

The event will kick off at 9 pm ET on Tuesday and last two hours. The conduct of the debate largely depends on the host, Fox Business Network, which has promised to stick to questions on economic and financial issues. The CNBC moderators of the last debate, on October 28, were widely criticized by the Republican candidates for asking "gotcha questions," with Republican National Committee chairman Reince Priebus going so far as to call the debate a "crap sandwich."

The FBN moderators have made it clear they have no interest in being the center of attention tonight. "My goal is to make myself invisible," Neil Cavuto, the correspondent who will be moderating the debate along with reporter Maria Bartiromo and Wall Street Journal editor-in-chief Gerard Baker, told Politico. "That I'm not the issue...That we're not the issue. The answers to what we're raising become the issue."

In addition to FBN's promise of focusing on politics over personalities, the main difference in tonight's debate from the last one is that there will only be a mere eight candidates on the stage, as opposed to 10 last time. Chris Christie and Mike Huckabee have been relegated to the earlier "kids' table" version, at 7 pm, because they failed to reach the requisite 2.5 percent national polling average to qualify for the varsity round.

But whether the debate moderators choose to stick to substance or not, two of the leading candidates should expect at least some uncomfortable questions coming their way.

Over the past week, frontrunner Ben Carson has faced scrutiny over details in his past, including claims in his autobiography Gifted Hands that he stabbed someone when he was a teenager and was offered a full scholarship to the prestigious West Point military school. So far no one has come forward to corroborate Carson's stories of his violent youth, and a spokesperson for West Point said there was no record of Carson being admitted or offered a scholarship to the school.

Carson has spent the past weekend vehemently denying that he lied in his autobiography and claiming that the media is unfairly targeting him. "There's no question I'm getting special scrutiny," Carson said on Face the Nation on Sunday. "The whole point is to distract the populace, to distract me."

But Carson's possible fibbing about his past doesn't seem to have hurt him at all in the polls. According to a new Washington Post-ABC poll released today, a whopping 71 percent of Republicans have a favorable view of the retired doctor. Donald Trump is in second place, with 68 percent and Marco Rubio follows with 58 percent.

Rubio is also coming into the debate after a rough week facing questions over his use of the Florida Republican Party's credit card while he was the speaker of the Florida House from 2005 to 2008. On Saturday, his campaign released credit card statements showing that Rubio charged a total of more than $22,000 in personal expenses during his time in the Florida statehouse. Rubio has maintained that he paid back all the personal expenses, although these payments were frequently late, amassing more than $1,600 in late fees.

Since the debate will focus on money issues, Rubio's history of messy personal finances is a likely target for the other candidates and moderators. Trump, never one to hold back, has already gone after Rubio, calling him a "disaster with his credit cards" last week.

Finally, Jeb! Bush, once the favorite of the Republican establishment, is arriving in Milwaukee under considerable pressure to do well. Or at least get noticed. His past debate performances have been more of a question mark than an exclamation point, and his campaign is performing poorly in the polls, but there's no indication he may be giving up. "Whatever you call it, it's not a debate," Bush said in New Hampshire recently. "It's a chance to be able to say what you think. And I'm going to take advantage of that."

But if he doesn't, there's still seven more primary debates left, with the next Republican one taking place on December 15. 

Follow Olivia Becker on Twitter: @obecker928