BOULDER, Colo. — Ted Cruz escaped from the first two Republican presidential debates largely unscathed, allowing him to boast that he stayed above the fray in otherwise cacophonous affairs.
The Texas senator's high-road strategy could be put to the test again Wednesday night outside the Mile-High City, where the GOP field is gathering for its third debate at the University of Colorado Boulder. Cruz is receiving a fresh wave of attention for the slow-but-steady campaign he is running, and with some of his foes looking to revive their own bids for the White House, he could be the target of new attacks.
The event comes as Cruz and his team appear more confident than ever that he is consolidating conservative support and building a durable campaign. Yet even as his presidential effort draws more national attention, he is still far behind the two Republican frontrunners — retired neurosurgeon Ben Carson and billionaire Donald Trump, both of whom appear to be vying for the same kind of voters as Cruz is.
Here are five things to watch for as Cruz prepares to take the stage:
1. Back to basics
Hosted by CNBC and named "Your Money, Your Vote," the debate is expected to center on jobs and the economy, less-inflammatory topics than those that have flared up with Trump leading the pack. The debate theme could provide Cruz an opening to discuss his bloodiest battle in Congress: his fight to fully repeal Obamacare, which he says is stifling U.S. economic growth.
The candidates will likely be asked about the new budget agreement struck by GOP leaders in Congress, another opportunity for Cruz to showcase his uncompromising style. The senator on Tuesday released a blistering statement on his opposition to the deal, calling it a "golden parachute" for outgoing House Speaker John Boehner and a "slap in the face to conservatives who rose up across the country" last year to put a Republican majority in Congress.
Cruz will nonetheless have to contend with rivals who bring a wide array of economic experience to the debate stage. Most notable will be Trump and former Hewlett-Packard CEO Carly Fiorina, who have made their private-sector records central to their campaigns.
2. Sharper contrasts
For months, Cruz has emphatically refused to go after his rival candidates, even when they share obvious differences on policy. But he has also talked about the race for the White House as a series of seasons and hinted that a more contentious period is on the horizon, specifically in regard to Trump.
"To force the consolidation that he wants ... he’s going to have to sharpen the contrasts," said Matt Mackowiak, an Austin-based Republican strategist. "I think the time is coming for that."
Cruz supporters say he will ramp up the contrasts on his own timeline — and certainly not at the urging of debate moderators hungry for conflict. After the last debate, Cruz joked that he thought CNN's moderators were trying to "turn it into Jerry Springer, have one of us pick up a chair and throw it at the other."
"If it’s one of those things where they try to pit candidates against each other, I believe you will see Ted Cruz not fall for that," said JoAnn Fleming, the Texas Tea Party chair of Cruz's campaign. "He really tries to stay out of the sandbox.”
3. The outsider argument
This is the season of outsider candidates, with two hopefuls who have never held elected office — Carson and Trump — topping the polls. Cruz has his highest-profile opportunity yet Wednesday night to put his candidacy in the context of the anti-establishment mood propelling Carson and Trump's popularity.
Cruz's allies believe that he's different from the other outsider candidates because the senator has a record of taking on Washington, whereas hopefuls such as Carson and Trump have been all talk. Endorsing Cruz for president on Friday, Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick offered the kind of case the senator could make for why he is the best choice for voters fed up with D.C.
"He is the outsider in this race but who understands the inside and how things work, and how to achieve victory in Washington," Patrick told reporters at the Cruz campaign headquarters in Houston. "Other people can be outsiders, but we don't really know they'll follow up and do what they say."
4. The hot seat
In the first two debates, Cruz largely avoided scrutiny from other candidates on the stage, save for a mild-mannered confrontation with former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush over his past support for John Roberts, now the chief justice of the U.S. Supreme Court. That could change Wednesday night, with Cruz ticking up in national polls and some of his foes looking to jumpstart their struggling campaigns.
One rival who could tangle with Cruz in Boulder is U.S. Sen. Rand Paul, the Kentuckian whose campaign has done little to hide its disdain for Cruz as he seeks to siphon off libertarian support from Paul. Paul has also put in blunt terms how he views Cruz's viability in the Senate after three years of clashing with his colleagues, saying last month that Cruz is "pretty much done for."
“It would not surprise me at all if Paul goes after Cruz very directly," Mackowiak said. "He’s a wounded and caged animal right now, and he needs to strike a blow. There’s really no love lost between those two camps."
5. Post-debate fundraising
In a race where Cruz is determined to show he has the most dynamic fundraising network, his post-debate hauls have become one measure he frequently cites. His campaign raised $1 million in the 100 hours after the first Republican debate and raked in just as much in less than half that time following the second debate.
An even quicker $1 million haul following the third debate could further bolster his case that there is an “explosion of momentum” for his candidacy, as he put it after the second event. Cruz appears confident the pace will not slow once he leaves Boulder.
“I’ve been very encouraged by the response we’ve seen coming out of the debates, and I hope we continue to move forward, keep building the momentum, keep seeing conservatives uniting behind our campaign,” Cruz said in an interview Friday on C-SPAN.