Tuesday night’s fifth GOP debate in Las Vegas will be the last chance the presidential candidates will have to make a strong impression on voters before the 2016 campaign is formally launched next month.
With the Iowa caucuses and New Hampshire primary looming, the stakes are high in a race that so far has been dominated by the outrageously bombastic Donald Trump. But that has begun to take on a more complex and uncertain hue.
Trump continues to lead in just about every national and important statewide poll, despite proposals including barring Muslims from entering the U.S. and interring and deporting millions of illegal immigrants -- utterances that would have disqualified lesser candidates in the past.
A new Monmouth University poll of voters identifying themselves as Republican or independents leaning toward the GOP shows Trump received 41 percent, nearly tripling the support of his closest rival. But he has begun to feel the heat of Sen. Ted Cruz of Texas who has surprisingly surged past Trump in Iowa and trails Trump by a mere five percentage points in a new Wall Street Journal/NBC News poll, 27 percent to 22 percent.
Now he is training his sights on Cruz, a far right champion of the Tea Party and Evangelical Christians, who had the audacity to tell a group of donors in New York that Trump lacked the “judgment” necessary to be in charge of nuclear weapons. Further, Cruz admitted that he had repeatedly praised Trump in order to position himself to pick up “the lion’s share” of Trump’s supporters when the former reality TV star begins to falter, according to The New York Times.
Trump boasted he would make short work of Cruz as he has the others. Over the weekend, he told Fox News Sunday that Cruz lacks “the right temperament” to be president and noted that he was hated by many of his colleagues in the Senate and would have trouble dealing with Congress as president.
“You look at the way he’s dealt with the Senate where he goes in there, frankly, you know, like a little bit of a maniac,” Trump said. “You’re never going to get things done that way.”
But Trump isn’t the only one who wants to trip up or slow down Cruz, who has demonstrated extraordinary talent in raising a major campaign war chest and mining big data to organize in Iowa and many other battleground states.
Sen. Marco Rubio of Florida, who like Cruz is a 44-year-old freshman senator and the son of Cuban immigrants, is offering himself as part of a new generation of GOP leaders and the rightful alternative to Trump. Rubio has attacked Cruz for being soft on terrorism and defense while Cruz has linked Rubio to immigration policies including hated “amnesty” for millions of illegal immigrants.
With time running out before the first votes are cast in primaries and caucuses early next year, Rubio must find a way to derail Cruz’s campaign effort, which is steadily gaining steam. A new Quinnipiac University poll shows Trump and Cruz running neck-and-neck in Iowa, 28 percent to 27 percent, among likely Republican caucus participants – twice Rubio’s support.
Finally, there is New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, who once was given up for dead politically because of the 2013 “Bridgegate scandal.” But Christie has stubbornly hung on, virtually camping out in New Hampshire where he is betting everything on a strong showing in the New Hampshire GOP primary Feb. 9.
Christie’s tough talk about terrorism and containing the long-term debt appear to be paying off. He surged to 12 percent in a recent WBUR poll, doubling his total from the previous month and moving up to second place behind Trump. While Trump still holds a commanding lead in the Granite State for now, his campaign would badly stumble if he lost to Cruz in Iowa Feb. 1 and then won by a hair or lost in New Hampshire, where Ohio Gov. John Kasich is also making a stand.
“My bet is that New Hampshire picks a different candidate than Iowa--because that's how New Hampshire likes to roll as a more moderate state,” Larry J. Sabato, a political scientist at the University of Virginia, said on Monday. “But it's just too soon to say which non-Cruz candidate will be the beneficiary. Christie has inched up but there's a lot of resistance to him, too. There will be lots of movement in the eight days between Iowa and New Hampshire.”