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Eye On Candidates
December 15, 2015

GOP Candidates Get Final Chance to Change 2015 Narratives

Las Vegas will host the final Republican debate of the year, giving many candidates their final shot in 2015 in at making an impression, changing or bolstering the current narrative, or demonstrating why they are legitimate contenders for the GOP nomination. As usual there is no shortage of pieces this morning advising the candidates on what they need to do and what voters ought to be looking for.

The Hill offers a succinct overview of tonight’s event:

Showdown in Vegas: Trump, Cruz seek upper hand in crucial debate

Nine contenders will take the stage for the main clash on CNN, but the most intense focus will fall on two candidates: businessman Donald Trump, who has led the national polls for several months, and Sen. Ted Cruz (Texas), who is rising fast and has snatched the lead from Trump in Iowa. 

Third-placed Sen. Marco Rubio (Fla.) will also be hoping to consolidate his position as a candidate able to straddle the GOP’s conservative-establishment divide.

The Trump vs. Cruz conflict could be the most important development tonight:

Trump can expect to face tough questioning on his recent call to bar Muslims from entering the United States, but several recent polls have indicated that a large swath of the GOP electorate agrees with him. 

A much trickier question for Trump is how to handle Cruz. The real estate mogul has blasted the senator in recent days, telling “Fox News Sunday” that Cruz behaves in the Senate “like a bit of a maniac” and asserting on CNN’s “State of the Union” that he has “far better judgment than Ted.”  

If Trump backs away from those attacks in the debate, he risks looking uncharacteristically weak. But if he goes after the Texan, a skilled debater, there is the possibility of him getting caught with the kind of verbal uppercut he has avoided in the four debates so far. 

Politico weighs in with its own observations, including a question about who might try to challenge Trump if Cruz elects to avoid a clash:

It’s easily the biggest question hovering over the debate: Who will seek out a long-awaited have-you-no-decency-sir moment?...

Marco Rubio? Initiating hard-hitting attacks on Trump hasn’t been his thing. Cruz? He’s all but sworn off the idea of taking on the businessman, whose voters he hopes will eventually come his way. Soft-spoken and mild-mannered Ben Carson? No way.

One possibility: Chris Christie, whose brash style and larger-than-life persona has made him a standout in debates and could make him an ideal Trump antagonist. Christie’s close-knit team is typically tight-lipped about his debate plans, though on a conference call with financial supporters last week, Christie strategist Mike DuHaime said the New Jersey governor would spend much of Monday conducting prep with advisers.

Another possibility: Jeb Bush, the fallen frontrunner who’s in need of a big moment to turbocharge his stalled campaign. Those who’ve spoken with the former Florida governor’s top advisers say they would badly like to see Trump go down, and people who’ve spoken with Bush directly say he seethes with contempt for the real estate mogul.

It may ultimately fall on one of the back-of-the-pack candidates to take the fight to Trump. Carly Fiorina and Rand Paul are gasping for oxygen, and a viral skirmish with the businessman could give them the attention they’re longing for. John Kasich and his allies have been banging away at Trump for weeks. And, perhaps signaling her plans to go after Trump on Tuesday, last week Fiorina called him a “gift” to Hillary Clinton.

Bloomberg Politics provides some insight on what it terms “middle-of-the-pack candidates”:

With less than two months remaining before the Feb. 1 Iowa caucuses and the Feb. 9 New Hampshire primary, middle-of-the-pack candidates hoping for a late surge in the polls have little choice but to come out swinging on Tuesday. That combative posture has not, however, come easily for Bush, retired neurosurgeon Ben Carson, or Ohio Governor John Kasich, who said in an interview with Face the Nation on Sunday that "polarization and divisions is going to lead us down the wrong path." According to the Real Clear Politics polling average Kasich, Bush, and Carson stand in fifth, sixth place, and seventh place, respectively, in New Hampshire, a state where Kasich and Bush have invested significant resources and time. 

While many anticipate a showdown between Cruz and Trump, some are also expecting Cruz to take aim at Rubio, as The New York Times suggests:

Mr. Rubio and Mr. Cruz have been locking horns for weeks on immigration and national security, and they are likely to clash Tuesday. With Mr. Cruz surging into first place in two recent Iowa polls and terrorism emerging as the top issue, Mr. Rubio is likely to step up his assault on Mr. Cruz for his support of guest-worker visas and of restrictions on some domestic surveillance programs.

Mr. Cruz has responded by highlighting Mr. Rubio’s work on a 2013 effort to offer illegal immigrants a pathway to citizenship — a major vulnerability for Mr. Rubio among conservatives.

In Tuesday’s debate, Mr. Cruz will almost certainly invoke “amnesty” to bludgeon Mr. Rubio, if given the chance. Remarkably, Mr. Rubio’s role in the bipartisan effort to overhaul immigration laws has not been brought up once in the previous four debates.

Mr. Rubio, though, would most likely counter — or try to pre-empt such an attack — by questioning Mr. Cruz’s somewhat muddled views about what to do with immigrants already in the country illegally. And Mr. Trump, who advocates mass deportation, could join in the pile-on, now that Mr. Cruz has emerged as his biggest threat.

The narratives coming out of the previous debates have played a major role in shaping the race for the Republican nomination, propelling Carson and Fiorina into contender status for example (though both have since faded) and reinforcing the view that Bush isn’t an aggressive campaigner (though he’s getting more combative on the stump of late). Tonight’s event is likely to produce similarly important narratives as time begins to run out on candidates hoping to either cement or change the current narrative before voting starts on Feb. 1.