There’s a lot of disagreement on when the “real” GOP presidential nomination process gets going. Some, of course, would argue it begins in the hospital anytime a baby is born to the Bush family.
 
But it may be kicking off now, as the candidates gather for tonight’s GOP debate in Colorado.
CNBC is hosting the two-show set tonight, which starts with a 6 p.m. undercard of Rick Santorum, Bobby Jindal, Lindsey Graham, and George Pataki.
 
Then comes the big show: The 10 GOP “frontrunners” with Ben Carson and Donald Trump at midstage. Out to Trump’s right, in descending order of voters currently giving a darn, will be Marco Rubio, Jeb Bush, Mike Huckabee and John Kasich. To Carson’s left will be Carly Fiorina, Ted Cruz, Chris Christie and Rand Paul.
 
So, just another debate, in an endless series of them, on a night when the Mets and Royals play the second game of the World Series. And it’s very specifically supposed to focus candidates on the economy, which may not attract as many viewers as the “who can promise to be meanest to immigrants and toughest on the Islamic State” contests we’ve seen in the past. So in what sense is the nomination race getting serious now?
 
The exact harbinger of “realness” is the fact that, with Carson overtaking Trump in both national and Iowa polls for the first time, voters are now browsing through candidates, trying them on, lighting up with a glow of appreciation, then frowning at the sight of a flaw and tossing them on the floor of the dressing room. In 2012 this process signaled the real kickoff as the GOP “frontrunner” label careened between Michele Bachmann, Rick Perry, Herman Cain, Newt Gingrich and Rick Santorum before finally falling into Mitt Romney’s lap.
 
In fact, around this point in the 2008 presidential election John McCain had fired most of his staff and his campaign was poor and left for dead, while Huckabee, Romney, Fred Thompson and Rudy Giuliani took turns being touted as poll leaders. Yes, we once lived in a nation where people spoke seriously about Thompson or Giuliani becoming president. Only silly people, in retrospect, spoke seriously of such things, but it did happen.
 
So the decision candidates must now make is whether they want to fight for their short season of  triumph like moths drawn to the spotlight by saying increasingly aggressive and outrageous things. Or do they now settle back and play the long game? It may depend whether they’re seeking marketability or the presidency, and the strategy each chooses should start to emerge tonight in the third round of GOP presidential debates.