Trump, Cruz in Spotlight for 5th Republican Debate

Jim Malone

Nine Republican presidential contenders will be on stage Tuesday in Las Vegas, Nevada, in the fifth Republican presidential debate.  This latest face-off comes amid public concerns about terrorism and national security, and new poll numbers that buttress the campaigns of real estate mogul Donald Trump and Texas Senator Ted Cruz.

Trump continues to lead in national polls, but Cruz is surging in Iowa, the state that begins the party selection process with its caucus voting on February 1st.

The poll results suggest that concern about terrorism in the wake of the December 2nd attack in San Bernardino, California, is having an impact on voters.

“The last time Quinnipiac University polled, the economy was the top issue.  Now it is terrorism, a subject on which Donald Trump gets the highest rating of any of the candidates,” said Quinnipiac assistant polling director Peter Brown. Brown added that Cruz “appears to be the main beneficiary of Dr. Carson’s apparent collapse,” referring to the retired neurosurgeon whose number have slumped.

Cruz in Iowa

A new Quinnipiac University poll of likely Iowa Republican caucus participants indicated a close race between Trump at 28 percent and Cruz with 27 percent.  Florida Senator Marco Rubio was third with 14 percent and Carson, who led the last poll in October, was fourth with 10 percent.  No one else was above five percent.

The Quinnipiac poll came on the heels of the latest Des Moines Register/Bloomberg Politics poll, which also had Cruz in first place in Iowa.

Cruz showed a 21 percent surge from the last Register poll in October, largely at the expense of a weakening Carson, who led the previous poll but fell 12 points in this latest survey, perhaps due to growing doubts about his ability to handle foreign policy issues.

Meanwhile, Cruz’s long term strategy of appealing to a range of conservative voters may be paying off as he draws support from Tea Party activists, foreign policy hawks and evangelical Christian voters who make up a key core constituency among Iowa Republican caucus voters.

Trump-Cruz battle?

Trump remains in the top spot nationally among Republican voters, according to the latest Wall Street Journal/NBC News poll.  Trump was at 27 percent in the survey followed by Cruz with 22 percent, Rubio in third with 15 percent and Carson in fourth place with 11 percent.

The Cruz surge in Iowa caught Trump’s attention, and he’s become more aggressive in his critique of the freshman Texas senator. Trump told Fox News Sunday that Cruz has acted “like a bit of a maniac” at times during his Senate career and warned that his inability to work with colleagues would limit his effectiveness.

Cruz continued to steer clear of any direct confrontation with Trump. He told supporters behind closed doors last week his approach was to “bear hug” both Trump and Carson, hoping to win over their supporters once their candidacies failed.

The possibility of an escalation of the Trump-Cruz feud will be on tap for Tuesday’s debate though Republican strategists are warning those who want to attack Trump to be careful.  Trump is “too smart, too ruthless and he likes fighting, he likes being a counter-puncher,” former House Speaker and 2012 Republican presidential candidate Newt Gingrich told the Hill newspaper.

In pursuit of mainstream voters

Even as Trump and Cruz battle for conservative hearts and minds, a fierce struggle is underway among several Republican contenders to be the leading mainstream or establishment candidate in the 2016 race.  New Jersey Governor Chris Christie was able to qualify for the main debate Tuesday as he continues to enjoy a mini-surge in the polls in New Hampshire, site of the first presidential primary election on February 9th.

Christie hopes a strong debate performance with a focus on countering terrorism will put him in the mix to be the mainstream favorite in a group that includes Rubio, former Florida governor Jeb Bush and Ohio Governor John Kasich.  Most political analysts predict that eventually one mainstream contender will emerge from this group to challenge the conservative wing of the party where currently Trump and Cruz are the favorites.

What happens in the cross-talk Tuesday among Rubio, Christie, Bush and Kasich could help one or more of those contenders position themselves for a strong showing in the New Hampshire primary, leaving the others to contemplate whether they can stay in the race.

Nine Republicans qualified for the CNN-sponsored debate Tuesday including Trump, Cruz, Carson, Rubio, Bush, Christie, Kasich, former business executive Carly Fiorina and Kentucky Senator Rand Paul.

An earlier so-called “undercard” debate will feature four contenders who did not do well enough in national state polls to qualify for the main debate stage: former Pennsylvania senator Rick Santorum, former Arkansas governor Mike Huckabee, South Carolina Senator Lindsey Graham and former New York governor George Pataki.  Former Virginia governor Jim Gilmore did not register enough poll support to be included in either debate

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