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BOULDER, Colorado — There’s someone new on top of the Republican presidential field as candidates gather here for the third debate of the campaign season.

After cruising at the top of the polls for several months, Donald Trump is seeing the first real cracks appear in his unorthodox candidacy, which for the past few months seemed invulnerable.

It started with Ben Carson overtaking Trump in Iowa for the first time last week. Then a CBS News/New York Times survey released on Tuesday showed Carson had relegated Trump to second place nationally. The poll was within the margin of error and it’s unclear whether Carson is simply enjoying a brief run at the top.

But the shift could cause Trump to change his tactics at the debate sponsored by CNBC.

Since launching his campaign this summer, Trump reserved his bomb-throwing tactics for more established politicians in the GOP field such as Jeb Bush and Marco Rubio. But Wednesday’s prime-time event is likely to highlight an abrupt course correction as Trump trains his fire on Carson.

Trump offered previews of those attacks in the days leading up to the debate.

The billionaire businessman slammed Carson for having “super low energy” and criticized his rival for being “very weak on immigration.” He even went after Carson in a personal way, suggesting over the weekend that the retired neurosurgeon’s religious affiliation — he’s a Seventh-day Adventist — was extreme.

Whether Carson will return the fire is a different matter. The quiet and reserved political newcomer has said he doesn’t plan to “get into the mud pit” with Trump, and when asked by reporters Wednesday about Trump’s attacks, Carson simply said, “It doesn’t surprise me.”

Ahead of the prime-time debate featuring Trump and Carson, the lowest ranking GOP candidates — Rick Santorum, Bobby Jindal, George Pataki and Lindsey Graham — battled it out at a 6 p.m. ET “undercard” event.

For all four men, the pressure’s on to raise their national poll numbers to qualify for the main debate stage hosted by Fox Business on Nov. 10.

Trump’s new vulnerability also offers political openings for his other, lower-ranking rivals, who have suffered from the bombastic real estate mogul’s dominance.

Bush, whose campaign is badly in need of a jolt of energy and is one of Trump’s favorite targets, seems particularly eager to put Trump on the spot. The former Florida governor also seems increasingly focused on drawing a contrast between himself and Rubio, his one-time mentee.

Carly Fiorina, who gave an impressive performance at last month’s CNN debate and directly took on Trump, may also want to seize on the opening to try to bring up her single-digit poll numbers.

Ten candidates will take the prime-time debate stage at the Coors Event Center at the University of Colorado campus here. In addition to Trump, Carson, Bush, Rubio and Fiorina, the candidates participating in the 8 p.m. ET debate are Ted Cruz, Mike Huckabee, Chris Christie, John Kasich and Rand Paul.

 

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