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Republicans' fear and loathing in Las Vegas

<p>On Tuesday night there will be fear and loathing in Las Vegas. The fear stoked by the terrorist attacks in Paris and San Bernardino will be palpable when the red lights of television cameras flicker on for the fifth GOP debate, as the nine rivals jostle to present themselves as the candidate who has the strength and strategy to take on Islamic State.</p><p>As for the loathing, that’s the rest of the field’s not-too-hidden feeling toward Donald Trump — and increasingly, Ted Cruz.</p><p>Trump enters the debate after reaching a new high in the polls, cracking 40 percent nationally after proposing an indefinite ban on Muslim immigrants that roiled the race.</p><p>But Cruz and Marco Rubio have broken into the upper tier with the billionaire businessman, and the battle lines drawn between those three candidates will matter the most as they seek to solidify their standing heading into the holidays and the forthcoming January sprint to the first primary contests in February.</p><p>“The debate will be like a prize fight between these contenders debating over Muslims, immigration, national security,” said Ron Bonjean, a GOP operative in Washington. “We’re likely to see punches being thrown between Cruz and Rubio and Trump as the gloves come off and the stakes get higher.”</p><p>The debate comes eight days after Trump dropped his bombshell of a proposal. None of his GOP rivals have endorsed it; many, in fact, have blasted the proposal as anti-American. </p><p>But the surveys show that Trump is masterfully playing into Americans’ fears. Roughly 6-in-10 Republicans endorse Trump’s proposal to ban Muslims from entering the U.S., and a new Pew Research Center poll out Tuesday shows the percentage of Americans who say government is doing a good job reducing the threat of terrorism has dropped 26 points from a year ago, to 46 percent. </p><p>While Trump is hitting new highs in national polls, Cruz has shot into first place in Iowa, becoming a fresh focus of Trump’s ire. The Texas senator has locked down every major endorsement from the state’s social conservative power structure and is drawing new supporters into the fold after Bobby Jindal left the race and Ben Carson, who was leading in Iowa just last month, fell apart when the race turned to more serious questions about national security.</p><p>Unlike the first four debates, Cruz won’t be allowed to maintain a low profile on the stage Tuesday night. As the clear front-runner in Iowa, Cruz is suddenly the top target. Both Trump and Rubio, who’s been drawing contrasts with Cruz for weeks, are likely to press hard on the senator’s weak spots: drawing attention to his less hawkish stance on national security and questioning his authenticity and ability to work with others.</p><br><p>Rubio has proven his abilities as a dynamic communicator in all four debates so far; and he’s seen his support grow slowly but steadily as a result. But, with Chris Christie suddenly ascendant in New Hampshire and Jeb Bush’s presence in the race keeping a number of establishment donors frozen in place, Rubio has yet to emerge as the clear establishment alternative to Trump and Cruz. That’s what’s at stake for him Tuesday night in Las Vegas.</p><p>Among the second-tier establishment contenders, Christie and Bush, along with John Kasich, may rush to condemn Trump over his proposed Muslim ban — although months of their collective calls for voters to get serious have fallen on deaf ears among a majority of primary voters seemingly indifferent to their more measured, establishment voices.</p><p>“If you want to be the alternative to Trump, you have to present a clear alternative,” said Bruce Haynes, the CEO of Purple Strategies. “Cruz is showing he’s not willing or capable. Is someone else? We’re inside of two months to Iowa, and we might be at an inflection point if someone is willing to stand up.</p><p>“I think it’s hard for Jeb at this point to insert himself into that space. I think Cruz, Rubio and Christie have the opportunity to do it.”</p><p>But Rubio, who is best positioned to consolidate establishment support given that he’s out-polling most rivals and widely viewed as the GOP’s most electable nominee, isn’t likely to take on Trump, happy to keep the billionaire in the race to keep Cruz from running away from the field in Iowa.</p><p>Carly Fiorina and Rand Paul will round out the eight candidates on stage Tuesday night, but the dynamics of the race have hardened enough at this point that the symbolism of qualifying for the main stage doesn’t do much to separate them from the other long-shots relegated to the undercard: Lindsey Graham, George Pataki, Mike Huckabee and Rick Santorum.<br /></p><br>

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