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Republican debate: Ahmed Mohamed's clock, and 5 more things to watch for

Candidate photos are displayed on podiums before the start of the CNN Republican presidential debate at the Ronald Reagan Presidential Foundation and Library on September 16, 2015, in Simi Valley, California.
Candidate photos are displayed on podiums before the start of the CNN Republican presidential debate at the Ronald Reagan Presidential Foundation and Library on September 16, 2015, in Simi Valley, California.
Justin Sullivan/Getty Images

With Donald Trump sustaining, Ben Carson surging, and the establishment picks sucking wind, Republicans meet in Simi Valley, California, Wednesday night for round two in their series of presidential primary debates. It starts at 8 pm Eastern on CNN, lasts for up to three hours, and could be the last hurrah for one or more of the candidates who have failed to gain traction.

Here are six things to watch for:

1) How do Republicans respond to the Ahmed Mohamed arrest?

The arrest of a Muslim ninth-grader who brought a homemade clock to school in Irving, Texas, has touched a nerve across the country. The local police chief says Ahmed Mohamed was arrested for a "hoax bomb," but no charges are being filed. His family believes he was mistreated because of his name.

Democratic frontrunner Hillary Clinton tweeted a message of support for Mohamed:

President Obama tweeted an invite to the White House:

Even though an arrest at a school is mostly a local matter, questions of discriminatory behavior by police have increasingly been raised at the federal level. It would be surprising if this didn't come up during the debate.

2) How do they handle the Planned Parenthood question?

Much of the federal government will shut down October 1 if Congress and the president can't agree on a new budget plan. But several of the Republican presidential candidates — and a committed group of conservatives on Capitol Hill — have said they think it's better to let federal funding lapse than to continue subsidizing the women's health organization Planned Parenthood, which is currently eligible for, and receives, government subsidies. They are upset over secretly recorded videos that they argue show Planned Parenthood profited from procuring fetal tissue for researchers, and the lawmakers are threatening to shut down the government over the group's funding.

One problem for the Republican presidential candidates is that the American people simply don't agree with the party's conservative wing: 71 percent of those surveyed in a CNN/ORC poll earlier this month said it was more important to fund the government, while 22 percent said it was more important to cut off federal subsidies for Planned Parenthood. The other issue, as Politico noted, is that Planned Parenthood would almost surely continue to get funding under Medicaid, where it gets the lion's share of its federal money, during a short-term shutdown — raising the bizarre possibility that its opponents would, in effect, be funding Planned Parenthood while shuttering federal agencies.

3) Raise taxes on private equity?

Donald Trump and Jeb Bush have endorsed closing the so-called carried-interest loophole that allows private equity managers to pay lower tax rates. Seizing on that, Obama is proposing to close that loophole now and use the money to boost spending for domestic programs. His proposal, which would tax carried interest at ordinary income rates, would raise $17.7 billion over 10 years, according to the administration. The New York Times has a pretty good explanation of carried interest here, but the basic idea is that it's a provision that allows the managers of private equity, venture capital, and other financial firms to have their profits taxed at a lower rate as long-term capital gains rather than as ordinary income.

Don't expect Republicans to rush to embrace Obama's plan, which is meant to put Republicans in Congress and in the presidential race on the spot. But it will be interesting to see how Bush and Trump respond to Obama's plan, as well as which candidates will defend lower taxes for Wall Street moguls and how they do it. Rand Paul, for example, has said he doesn't want to raise taxes on anyone and would take care of the loophole with his version of a flat tax.

4) What would they do about Syrian refugees and the global crisis?

It turns out this is a really tough question for most of the Republican contenders. On the one hand, there's the moral compulsion to help the most vulnerable world. On the other, the candidate leading the field for the nomination, Donald Trump, has been boosted in part by his attacks on immigrants. Trump's personal difficulty with the refugee issue — he backtracked a bit after telling Fox that the US should accept some refugees — speaks to the larger dilemma for the full set of GOP candidates.

Republican responses so far have run the gamut from Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker saying the US shouldn't take in any more refugees to Sen. Lindsey Graham saying the US should take its share or "take down the Statue of Liberty," the defining symbol of the nation's openness to immigrants. President Barack Obama has instructed his administration to take in 10,000 Syrian refugees over the fiscal year beginning October 1. There are roughly 4 million refugees from Syria's civil war, and that conflict and others have caused a global refugee crisis.

5) Can Ben Carson survive the spotlight?

If Trump looks over his shoulder right now, he'll see former neurosurgeon Ben Carson gaining ground fast. Trump led 27 percent to 23 percent in a CBS/New York Times poll released this week. But Carson has really only become a factor recently, and this is the first time many Republican voters will be listening carefully to his policy ideas and judging how he compares with the other candidates on the stage. He handled himself well in the first debate but even joked that he didn't get to say much. That will be different this time around.

6) What will Jeb Bush do to show he's not "low-energy"?

Trump's been torturing Bush with the taunt that he's "low-energy." Now sitting at 6 percent in the last CBS/New York Times poll, Bush has to do something to shake up the race and give his donors and supporters confidence that he'll be able to rally later in the campaign. Attacking Trump directly hasn't really worked for him, so maybe just demonstrating a little energy on stage would be helpful. If he's flat, he'll have trouble bouncing back.

Correction: Conservatives argue that secretly recorded videos show Planned Parenthood profited from procuring fetal tissue for researchers.

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