Trump in Cross Hairs at Tonight's GOP Debate

Trump in Cross Hairs at Tonight's GOP Debate
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Republican candidates for president will debate for the final time this calendar year Tuesday night in Las Vegas— a match-up that could set the tone of the race leading into the first primaries early next year.

The advantage heading into the mainstage gathering of nine leading candidates belongs to Donald Trump. The billionaire businessman continues to lead by wide margins in many polls, including in key primary states, having tapped a well of populist zeal. But his dominance, the unlikely story of the race since he announced his candidacy over the summer, has begun to show cracks — with Sen. Ted Cruz recently overtaking Trump in Iowa, according to the RealClearPolitics polling average.  

The emerging political rivalry between Trump and Cruz has escalated within the past week and promises to play out in full view of voters at the debate, which airs at 8:30 Eastern time on CNN. After The New York Times reported last week that the Texas senator questioned Trump’s “judgment” during a private fundraiser, the frontrunner countered with a similar assertion on “Fox News Sunday,” saying Cruz has legislated in the upper chamber “like a little bit of a maniac.”

The shift in tone is particularly stark after months of cloyingly friendly relations between the two men, who have until now refused to attack each other on the campaign trail — a marriage of convenience, no doubt, for candidates courting the same supporters. Cruz has openly speculated that he would be the beneficiary should Trump’s voters abandon him.

But Cruz is not the sole hunter in what is now open season on Trump, who has recently come under increasing fire from his challengers and will likely face a barrage of attacks regarding his proposal to put a moratorium on Muslims coming to the United States. That stance was met publicly with scorn by many Republicans, although a recent NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll found that 42 percent of the party’s voters support it.

Trump won’t be the only candidate playing defense, however. Cruz will likely need to defend himself, not only from Trump but also Marco Rubio, a fellow freshman senator who has recently targeted Cruz as weak on national security and an “isolationist.” Cruz has meanwhile reminded Republican voters of Rubio’s role in crafting the Gang of Eight immigration reform plan, which Cruz characterized in one radio interview as “a massive amnesty plan.” Rubio and Cruz have both been rising in the polls, and each has performed well in past debates.

For most of the other candidates, the debate will serve as one last chance to create momentum or stage a comeback before the primary season ramps up next year. But finding oxygen in the crowded primary field presents a monumental challenge, perhaps even more so at this late stage.

Dr. Ben Carson will look to recapture the imagination of conservative Republicans -- evangelicals Christians in particular, whose support earlier this year vaulted him into the lead in Iowa but waned after the retired neurosurgeon appeared out of his depth on foreign policy. Carson will travel to the Hawkeye State following the debate, hoping to cement any gains he makes there from his performance.

Meanwhile, there remains an intense competition among candidates targeting New Hampshire as their ticket forward. Trump leads in the Granite State by a wide margin, but current or former governors Chris Christie, Jeb Bush and John Kasich are all well positioned to break through, in addition to Cruz and Rubio. Christie in particular has enjoyed a spurt of momentum since he received an endorsement last month from the influential Union Leader newspaper, and a strong debate showing could multiply that effect for him.

Also onstage during the prime-time debate, but with less apparent opportunity to climb, will be Sen. Rand Paul and Carly Fiorina, a former CEO of Hewlett-Packard. Both narrowly met the polling threshold for this debate, and neither has established a strong base of support in the first two voting states. Their challenge will be to break through the noise, and perhaps grab a headline, from lecterns at the polar ends of the stage.

Four other candidates still will participate in the 6 p.m. undercard debate: Sen. Lindsey Graham, former Govs. Mike Huckabee and George Pataki, and former Sen. Rick Santorum.

Rebecca Berg is a national political reporter for RealClearPolitics. She can be reached at rberg@realclearpolitics.com.

 

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