Politics & Policy

Four Storylines to Watch at the Las Vegas GOP Debate

Billboard on Las Vegas Boulevard, December 14, 2015. (Robyn Beck/AFP/Getty)

Las Vegas — With just seven weeks until the first votes are cast in the race for the Republican presidential nomination, the candidates are set to face off in a debate at the Venetian in Las Vegas on Tuesday night. Nine candidates will appear on the main debate stage: Donald Trump, Ted Cruz, Ben Carson, Jeb Bush, Marco Rubio, Chris Christie, Carly Fiorina, John Kasich, and Rand Paul. Mike Huckabee, Rick Santorum, Lindsey Graham, and George Pataki will face off in an undercard debate several hours before. Here are four storylines to pay attention to as the night goes on:

Trump vs. Cruz?

Donald Trump appears to be itching for a fight with Ted Cruz, after the New York Times posted audio of Cruz privately dismissing Trump’s candidacy as likely to fade. Trump had said he would not attack Cruz unless the Texas senator attacked him, but, appearing on Fox News Sunday, Trump called Cruz “a little bit of a maniac” and declared: “I don’t think he’s qualified to be president.”

As eager as Trump is for a fight, Cruz appears equally eager to avoid the confrontation, tweeting laudatory comments about his rival, and deflecting the “maniac” jab by posting a clip from the movie Flashdance.

Yet a dustup seems increasingly likely after two polls released this weekend showed Cruz surpassing Trump in Iowa. In the past, Trump has responded to challenges to his polling supremacy by lashing out at the person who knocked him off his pedestal.

Everyone vs. Trump

Trump ignited a fresh controversy last week when he proposed blocking all Muslims from entering the U.S. in the wake of the terror attack in San Bernardino, Calif. The comment provoked the strongest backlash from Republicans yet against their front-runner. All the other GOP candidates have disavowed Trump’s proposal, with varying degrees of force — but the Vegas debate offers them the first opportunity to say it to Trump’s face. Candidates like Jeb Bush, John Kasich, and Chris Christie could try to seize the moment to be the adult in the room. For Kasich and Bush, whose poll numbers have faded in recent weeks, this could be an opportunity to get back in the conversation with a forceful attack on Trump. Cruz, meanwhile, could wind up in the hot seat as he tries to triangulate between his disagreement with Trump’s position and his clear unwillingness to openly attack.

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Cruz vs. Rubio

Immigration has been one of the main subjects of the Republican conversation thus far, and with the candidates facing off in a state where 28 percent of the population is Hispanic, the topic is almost certain to come up. Since the last debate, Rubio and Cruz, the two Hispanic Republicans in the field, have been butting heads on immigration. Rubio has accused Cruz of not being the ideological purist he claims to be on the issue, noting that he previously supported increasing the number of legal immigrants to the U.S. This is the first time the two will have shared a stage since Rubio’s campaign began its open assault on Cruz, and with many now predicting the race will come down to a contest between the two senators, the stage is set for an open confrontation.

Does Christie make his case?

#related#The New Jersey governor’s strategy of camping out in New Hampshire is finally starting to pay dividends: Polls show Christie climbing solidly into contention in the first-in-the-nation primary state. That strong polling allowed him to muscle his way back onto the main stage, after a brief appearance at the kiddie table last month in Milwaukee. Christie is a strong debater, and with the wind at his back, this is his moment to make the case that he, not Bush, Kasich, or Rubio, should be the establishment alternative in New Hampshire and beyond.

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