CALIFORNIA, September 15, 2015– The first GOP debate hosted by Fox News was a game-changer. Some candidates shined, while others made mistakes they may not be able to recover from. Polls typically don’t have much weight this early on, but with the party using poll performance as qualifier to have a seat on the main stage, they carry more weight than usual. Yes, it’s still early, but with Labor Day having passed, campaign season is officially in full swing. Here are 8 crucial questions ahead of CNN’s Wednesday night debate at the Ronald Reagan library in California.

1.) Will Donald Trump even show?

Trump has threatened CNN that if they do not donate the proceeds from advertising dollars, then he’ll choose not to attend the debate. The way Trump sees it, CNN will take bundles of cash to the bank due to record-breaking viewership tuning in to see him, so he feels entitled to run the show. Either way, it’s a win for Trump. He’ll get just as many headlines if he doesn’t show as he would if he did. Not to mention the fact that his last debate performance wasn’t spectacular, so it could be a way for Trump to avoid policy while still stealing the publicity.

2.) Has Ted Cruz peaked? How will he deal with Huckabee?

U.S. Senator Ted Cruz (R-Texas) has struggled to capture more than 10 percent of the vote. In late April, Cruz had his best showing in the polls with an average of 11.3 percent. However, his support dropped below 5 percent before the first GOP debate. On the day of the debate, Cruz captured approximately 5.5 percent support. Post-debate, Cruz rode a small wave and managed to reach 7.3 percent, but is currently back down to 6.7 percent. That being said, Cruz has grassroots conservatives right where he wants them. Also, with former Texas Governor Rick Perry out of the race, Cruz could see a bump from voters in his home state. However, many believe that Cruz’s appeal is limited– especially when he has having to compete for the evangelical vote with former Arkansas Governor Mike Huckabee whose campaign staff has literally blocked Cruz from speaking to the media so the Governor can steal the show. The best thing that could happen for Cruz would be for Huckabee to end his campaign. However, Huckabee isn’t likely to do so. After all, he’s just in it for another book deal. Even if Huckabee were to drop out, Cruz has a narrow path to victory with an even more narrow potential voter base to carry him there. Even so, it may behoove Cruz to call Huckabee out on being an avid supporter of Common Core. This could knock Huckabee down a few points and those folks would naturally migrate to Cruz.

3.) Will Carson take Trump’s place atop the post-debate polls?

In the first GOP debate, Dr. Ben Carson was cool, calm and collected. He managed to answer some tough questions. Your average policy-wonk wasn’t impressed with Carson’s responses, but what do they know? America loves Carson and they should. Unlike Donald Trump, Carson is even-tempered, has a kind heart and is a true outsider. While Trump’s supporters haven’t flocked to Carson just yet, Carson has made impressive gains in the polls. He’s even caught up to Trump in Iowa. During the first debate, Carson registered only 5.8 percent. Currently capturing 17.8 percent, he has jumped 12 points since then. As more Americans learn about Trump’s deep connections and financial ties to Washington, some Americans wanting an outsider to sit in the White House may see Carson a more suitable alternative. However, Carson will need to take a stand in the next debate. He has America’s attention, now it’s time to show us he has the guts to be America’s next Commander in Chief. As of today, Carson is only 12 points behind Trump.

4.) Can Jeb Bush defeat his worst enemy, himself?

Jeb Bush hit a high of 17.8 percent support in July. Since then, it’s been a downward spiral. By time the first debate aired, Bush had lost almost 5 points and Trump had taken over as the leading candidate. Speaking of the debate, Bush was a drag. Not a single pundit had a nice thing to say about his performance and America agreed. Post-debate, Bush shredded almost another 5 points and currently sits at 7.8 percent support. Many may like to blame Trump for Bush’s decline, but the only person responsible for Bush’s decline is Bush himself. What does it say about your strength as a candidate if a bombastic reality TV star can knock you off your perch in a matter of weeks? Bush needs to save himself in the CNN debate, and only he can do it.

5.) Can Rand Paul, Scott Walker and Chris Christie redeem themselves?

Pundits had high hopes for Senator Rand Paul, Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker and New Jersey Governor Chris Christie, but each has fallen from grace. At one point, polls showed each of them in the lead for the party’s nomination. Paul is a tea party, libertarian leaning Republican from Kentucky who made it his mission to improve the GOP’s image with minorities, independents and youth. From a high of 17 percent, Paul currently captures only 2.7 percent. Some thought he may not even make it to the second debate. His first debate performance left many Republicans with a bad taste in their mouth. What’s worse is that Paul is now viewed as unfavorable by more than 40 percent of voters, while 30 percent have a favorable opinion and 30 percent are undecided. Those numbers continue to get worse for Paul. Meanwhile, Walker has struggled to define himself. Most insiders will tell you that Walker is no grassroots conservative and more closely aligns with the policies of Bush and Kasich. Regardless, Walker has set out to appease conservatives rather than establishment types. It’s a worthy strategy, but folks just aren’t buying it yet. Walker’s first debate performance was lackluster at best. Before the first debate, many didn’t know who Walker was. Post-debate, his poll numbers took a hit. Before the debate, Walker was polling at 10.6 percent which was down from an all time high of 16.6 percent. Today, he only captures 3.8 percent. Favorability is also an issue with Walker. In March, 26 percent of those polled had a favorable opinion of Walker. Today, that number remains unchanged. Meanwhile, in Mach, 27 percent had an unfavorable opinion of Walker. Today, 35 percent have a negative opinion of Walker. Regardless of Walker’s and Paul’s problems, they should both be thankful they aren’t Christie. At one point, Christie dominated the GOP field with 20 percent of the vote. Today, he only registers support from 2 percent of voters. Meanwhile, 50 percent of voters have a negative opinion of him while only 26 percent view him favorably.

6.) Will John Kasich continue his surge, or is it already over?

Establishment donors are looking to Ohio Governor John Kasich as a potential alternative to Jeb Bush should he continue to flop. Kasich announced his bid for the White House just before the first GOP debate and managed to wrestle himself a seat on the main stage. During the debate, Kasisch was charismatic and had a moderately high level of energy. Reaching a high of 5 percent on September 1, his performance resulted in a small bump. However, two weeks later, today Kasich is already back down to 3.5 percent. As long as Bush, Christie and Rubio are in the race, Kasich may not have much room to grow. In order to do so, he will need to separate himself from the other establishment candidates while simultaneously continuing to appeal their supporters in the next debate. No easy task.

7.) Will Carly Fiorina still stand out?

Maybe it was her responses, maybe it was because she was the only non-politician on stage, or maybe it was simply because she was the only woman. Regardless, Fiorina was sat at the kids’ table during the first debate, and she stuck out like a sore thumb. Fiorina impressed millions and thrust herself onto the main-stage for the 2nd debate. Before the first debate, Fiorina was barely registering in the polls. Today, with 4.3 percent support, she’s polling in 7th place. She remains the GOP’s only female candidate, so she’ll likely still stand out, but will that be enough? When she speaks, people will listen. Especially now since she is on the main stage. However, she’s no longer the only outsider on stage and that stage is much larger. Will she find a way to stand out now that she’s in the big leagues?

8.) Speaking of the kids table…

Is there room on the main stage for another underdog to join Fiorina in the big leagues? Probably not. Perry seemed to recognize this early on and was the first victim in the 2016 GOP primary. On September 11, Perry ended his campaign with grace. Meanwhile, it has become abundantly clear that Rick Santorum’s 2012 wave of support was nothing more than conservative repudiation to Mitt Romney becoming the nominee. He has failed to register more than 1 percent in the polls. Also, Senator Lindsey Graham has failed to register more than 1 percent in the polls and hasn’t even registered enough support in his own home state of South Carolina to qualify for a candidate forum. In addition, Louisiana Governor Bobby Jindal and Former New York Governor George Pataki have only registered 1 percent, which is enough to get them a seat at the kids’ table, but not enough to raise the money they need to keep their campaigns alive. Former Virginia Governor Jim Gilmore failed to even register 1 percent, and will not be allowed in the second under-card debate. If there was a candidate left from the kids’ table that had the political clout to pull up a seat to the main stage, it was probably Perry.

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