As he stood next to Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker in a high school gymnasium in suburban Milwaukee late Monday afternoon, one couldn't help wonder if former Florida Governor Jeb Bush was pondering whether his own campaign would ultimately fare better than that of his former rival.
Walker, who dropped out of the Republican presidential nomination race on Sept. 21, went from front-runner to former candidate in a matter of weeks late last summer in one of the most precipitous falls in modern campaign history.
Bush won't have such stark contrasts this evening when he walks onto a debate stage in downtown Milwaukee with seven other candidates for a session critical to his candidacy. After lackluster performances in three previous face-offs and a collapse in his poll numbers, his supporters and donors are nervous and considering other options.
“I'm looking forward to it, absolutely,” Bush told reporters after an event at a private charter school with Walker in Waukesha, Wisconsin. “I'm going to talk to the American people tomorrow.”
Bush and retired neurosurgeon Ben Carson will have the most eyes on them as the debate gets underway at 9 p.m. New York time. Carson has been trying to fight off questions regarding his credibility in recent days in connection with details he's shared about his life story in books and speeches.
“Truth takes a little while to come out sometimes, but I think we've rebuffed all of those ridiculous charges,” Carson's campaign manager, Barry Bennett, said Monday on Bloomberg Politics' With All Due Respect program.
It will be harder for Carson to rely on a blame-the-media strategy at the debate, which will be focused on economic policy and jobs. In past debates, he's managed to keep a relatively low profile. That could change as he's moved into a front-runner position, even while failing to offer many detailed policy proposals of his own along the campaign trail.
For his part, Bush has pledged to do better, promising to be a bolder, more focused candidate after the last debate, held in Colorado.
“This new energy must be reflected by Bush on stage and exceed the expectations of increasingly skeptical donors and the press corps watching,” said Republican strategist Ron Bonjean. “A lot is on the line with this performance and it could propel him forward with a new spotlight or cast him as a candidate still trying to find his footing.”
In his remarks at the school, Bush only made one brief mention of the debate, playfully praising three children for the questions they asked at the event. “They're better than the moderated debate questions,” he said. “If you're free tomorrow night, maybe you could come by the arena.”
He and his fellow Floridian, Senator Marco Rubio, both appeared with Walker on the eve of the debate at events separated by a 10-minute drive. Asked by Bloomberg Politics whether he still prefers governors to senators, as Walker argued during his own campaign, he expressed greater neutrality. “We'll see,” he said.
The Wisconsin governor has said he has no plans to endorse a candidate in the race until sometime next year. He and Bush praised each other's conservative records at their joint event.
“Thanks for being such a great leader,” said Walker, who was making his first public appearance with any of his former Republican nomination rivals since dropping out of the race. “We looked, as did many other governors that were elected in 2010, at what happened in Florida because there was a transformation and we appreciate that leadership.”
Walker was scheduled to later join Rubio and Republican state lawmakers for a fundraiser hosted by Wisconsin Assembly Speaker Robin Vos, who along with 19 other state lawmakers recently endorsed Rubio.
At an event inside a suburban Milwaukee hotel ballroom, Rubio made no direct mention of the debate or Bush, although he did say the nation is “stuck with outdated leaders with outdated ideas” and made another reference that appeared directed at Bush.
“We have a lot of leaders, sometimes in both parties, that like to tell you how many jobs they created, when they were president, when they were governor, when they were senator, when they were mayor,” he said. “The truth is presidents, governors, senators, congressmen, and mayors don't create jobs, the private sector does.”
Tuesday evening's debate, hosted by Fox Business Network and the Wall Street Journal, will offer Rubio a chance to try to build on the momentum he's generated since the last debate on Oct. 28.
Senator Ted Cruz of Texas will be trying to do the same, as the latest national and early state polls show Carson and billionaire Donald Trump remain in a tight race for the front-runner title. Also on stage will be Ohio Governor John Kasich, Senator Rand Paul of Kentucky, and former Hewlett-Packard chief executive Carly Fiorina.
Ahead of the main event, the under-card version will include two candidates who were demoted from the main stage: New Jersey Governor Chris Christie and former Arkansas Governor Mike Huckabee. That session, for candidates who didn't meet Fox's polling standards for the prime-time session, will also include Louisiana Governor Bobby Jindal and former Senator Rick Santorum of Pennsylvania.
As Bush and Walker said goodbye before leaving with their entourages, the Wisconsin governor smiled and said “good luck.” Bush certainly could use it.