Tonight’s debate, the last of the GOP free-for-alls of 2015, could be the first time a new front frontrunner emerges.
With Donald Trump behind Ted Cruz in Iowa, Chris Christie gaining in New Hampshire and Marco Rubio kicking off a new ad campaign in Las Vegas, anything can happen.
And what about Jeb Bush? Jeb who?
So let’s play it out. Here are six possible knockouts in the fight for first place.
- Who will take on Trump for his outrageous call to bar Muslims from the U.S.?
Coming in the wake of the deadly terrorist attack in San Bernardino, California that killed 14, Trump’s comment triggered sharp rejoinders from many of the GOP presidential candidates, including Bush who said that Trump had come “unhinged.”
With polls showing that many Republicans actually agree with Trump’s hardline response to terrorist attacks in California and Paris, it will be interesting to see if Bush, Kasich and others temper their remarks or double down on them.
- Will Trump continue to hammer Cruz on his temperament and strained relations with his Senate colleagues or pull back?
Trumps modus operandi has been to attack first whenever another candidate comes close to dethroning him, a pattern leading up to Trump’s past appearances in debates. He often mercilessly criticizes his opponents in campaign appearances and TV interviews but then mutes the attacks before large televised audiences to try to appear more presidential and reasonable – as if that were possible.
- If Trump comes out smoking, how will Cruz respond?
Until now, Cruz has been highly circumspect in responding to Trump, refusing to let the media draw him into public spats with the billionaire, even when he disagrees with him – as in the case of Trump’s call for discriminating against all Muslims. So far, Cruz has handled Trump’s assaults with humor –even tweeting a joke about being called a “maniac.” The wily Texan likely would use the same tactics during tomorrow’s two-hour debate rather than coming to blows with Trump on national television.
- Will Carson be able to reverse the slide in his poll numbers?
The carnage, and the subsequent terror attack in California, woke up many of Carson’s supporters to the fact that the soft-spoken surgeon doesn’t have much foreign policy experience. It caused them to migrate over to Cruz who sits on at the Senate Armed Services Committee. Cruz has vowed to “carpet bomb” the Islamic State “back to the stone age.” Carson has only 10 percent support in Iowa in the new Quinnipiac University poll compared to 18 percent in a November 24 survey.
- Can Christie continue to make up ground?
He was cut from the last primetime debate due to lack of support. Relegated to the so-called “undercard,” Christie made the most of a chance to get back to the big leagues, delivering a forceful performance that largely targeted Democratic frontrunner Hillary Clinton rather than his fellow Republicans. Now that he’s back on the mainstage, he will have to show why he belongs there and avoid giving the kind of performance that made him pretty much an asterisk in the first few GOP debates.
- Will Trump reaffirm his commitment to support the GOP nominee, whether or not he prevails?
Trump's tweet last Tuesday strongly hinting that he might mount an independent bid for president was a clear warning to more establishment Republicans that they criticize him for his controversial policies at their own peril.
Martin Matishak contributed to this report.