As the Republican presidential candidates head into their first primary debate since the Paris and San Bernardino terrorist attacks, the national conversation — previously centered on the economy — has widened to include national security and the war on terror.
Real estate magnate Donald Trump remains the dominant frontrunner, beating his closest competitors, Ted Cruz, Marco Rubio, and Ben Carson, by roughly 15 percentage points in an average of national polls compiled by Real Clear Politics
Gathered below are eight things to watch for during Tuesday's fifth Republican primary debate in Las Vegas.
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1. Four top candidates seek to maintain and grow
— Donald Trump, Ted Cruz, Marco Rubio, and Ben Carson have emerged as the top-tier candidates, all garnering more than 12 percent of support from likely primary voters. Trump leads with 33 percent, while the other three hover around 15 percent.
2. Five candidates seek a way up from the bottom
— Jeb Bush, Chris Christie, John Kasich, Carly Fiorina, and Rand Paul all made the main stage for tonight's debate, but remain in a slump with less than 5 percent support. All will seek to turn the attention of the audience away from the frontrunners, generate headlines, and look for a way to shine amid a crowded field.
3. Carson tries to stop the bleeding
— The famous neurosurgeon enjoyed a surge in support this past autumn, and even overtook Trump for a few days in early November. But, ever since the national conversation has turned to international politics and security, his support has plummeted. It's now less than half of what it was before. During the debate, Carson will likely seek to prove he not only understands what's going on abroad, but has just the right prescription for fixing it. If he can't, he's likely to fall from the top tier entirely.
4. Trump vs. Cruz
— Texas Sen. Ted Cruz has surged during November and December, resulting in verbal attacks from frontrunner Donald Trump. Trump called Cruz a "maniac" this week, but Cruz refused to take the bait, and responded with a humorous tweet
that included a clip from the movie "Flashdance." It remains to be seen whether Trump will continue his attacks in an attempt to bat down his rival, or if he'll pull his punches in an attempt to look more presidential. Cruz has a similar choice, but also has the rhetorical capability to level more subtle digs at his opponent.
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5. Trump's Muslim ban
— The billionaire set off a firestorm and received widespread condemnation earlier this month when he proposed temporarily banning foreign Muslims from entering the U.S. for any reason. His plan was condemned by not only Democrats, but all of his GOP rivals and many party leaders such as House Speaker Paul Ryan. Many said such a plan would alienate America's Muslim allies like Jordan's King Abdullah II. Trump's plan will certainly come under scrutiny during the debate. It's up to him to defend it, and his rivals to propose alternatives.
6. Rubio's rise?
— While Cruz has maneuvered to brand himself as an outsider like Trump, Rubio has sought a more moderate position, likely seeking to secure the support from across the center-right. According to CNN
, "Rubio faces high expectations, mostly of his own making, after turning in a string of quality debate performances. And circumstances may favor him, as he presents himself as the candidate best prepared to serve as commander-in-chief at a time of global uproar and terror threats."
7. National security focus
— In the wake of the Paris and San Bernardino terror attacks — not to mention Tuesday morning's credible threat on Los Angeles schools — expect to see the majority of the candidates draw a contrast with libertarian Sen. Rand Paul. They'll likely do much the same with Cruz, who voted against continuing the NSA intelligence program that once collected phone metadata in order to map terror networks. Among the candidates, Trump and Carson have not offered many details about their plans for the Middle East, and many voters will be listening for both to present an overall vision as well as specifics on what will achieve that vision.
8. Last chance to make an impression
— In past election cycles, presidential candidates have had their reputations largely cemented by the debate that leads into Christmas and the New Year. This debate will be one of the last chances many candidates have to create a lasting, impactful impression on voters before the primaries begin next year.
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