Republican presidential candidates square off in the final debate of 2015 at 8:30 p.m. EST tonight on CNN. You can watch a live stream of the debate here. As we close out 2015 and get closer to the first contests in Iowa and New Hampshire in February, polls show that Trump has a commanding lead nationally, Cruz has jumped into the lead in Iowa, and Marco Rubio seems to be making a move in New Hampshire.
So what should we expect to see during the CNN debate tonight in Las Vegas?
1) Cruz Is Now The Iowa Frontrunner
Since receiving the endorsements of key social conservatives in Iowa, Texas Sen. Ted Cruz has rocketed into the lead in the Hawkeye State. The widely respected Selzer poll released by the Des Moines Register over the weekend shows Cruz with a 10-point lead over Trump in Iowa.
Over the last six weeks, support for Cruz in Iowa has nearly tripled, according to the Real Clear Politics polling average. The junior Texas senator has gone from less than 10 percent support in October to a current polling average of 26 percent. While anything is possible in politics, it appears that Cruz is likely heading for a victory in the Iowa caucus on February 1.
As a result, don’t expect Cruz to go hard after the other candidates during the debate tonight. There may be a jab here or there, but Cruz has no incentive to pick a big fight with anyone. His likely goal is to cement his position in Iowa and use a victory there to give him some momentum going into New Hampshire, an open primary state where Cruz is currently in fourth place.
2) Carson Begins To Fade Away
Cruz’s big jump in Iowa has come entirely at the expense of pediatric neurosurgeon Ben Carson. Since late October, Cruz’s support in Iowa has risen by 17 percent, while Carson’s has dropped by 17 percent. While Carson still has the best favorability numbers in the state–74 percent of likely caucus-goers in Iowa have a favorable impression of him–his topline polling numbers just aren’t keeping up. One big reason may be the recent terrorist attacks in Sen Bernardino, California. In the most recent Quinnipiac poll in Iowa, voters said terrorism was their top issue heading into the February caucus. Unfortunately for Carson, only 3 percent of those polled said he was the best candidate to handle the terrorism issue.
The social conservative endorsements of Cruz came at the worst possible time for Carson. Just as conservative voters were beginning to reevaluate whether Carson could handle the job as commander-in-chief, Cruz got a big thumbs up from state leaders deeply respected by a big chunk of conservative Iowa Republicans. The result? A big switch from the eminently likeable Ben Carson to the perhaps safer and more credible Ted Cruz.
Expect Carson to try and address those concerns about his ability to handle national security and foreign policy issues. He most likely won’t attack other candidates–that’s just not his style–but he’ll need to do something big to show that he’s up to the task when it comes to terrorism. If he can’t pull that off, then you’ll see even more of his supporters head over to Cruz’s camp.
3) Trump Doesn’t Like Being A Loser
Donald Trump’s a winner. He wins at things all the time. But it’s increasingly looking like he’s going to be a loser in Iowa. So how will that affect Trump’s strategy during the GOP debate tonight?
My guess is that he’ll go hard after Ted Cruz. Trump has never been one to employ subtle rhetorical strategies. He’s big and bombastic and he’ll say whatever he needs to say to get attention right now. He has to blunt Cruz’s momentum.
Why? Because it’s not impossible to imagine Iowa being the beginning of the end of Trump’s run for the White House. If a sizable percentage of Trump’s supporters don’t actually show up to vote for him in the Iowa caucus on February 1, it’s possible that Cruz could win the state going away, Rubio could end up with a strong second place showing, Carson might hold on to third place, with Trump ending up in fourth. Sure, Trump currently has a big lead in New Hampshire, but everything in New Hampshire changes once the Iowa results are in. A Trump faceplant in Iowa might spell the end of Trump’s lead in New Hampshire, especially if Rubio can figure out a way to top him in Iowa.
Donald Trump’s going to do everything in his power to make sure that scenario never materializes. Cruz is now his top threat, making Cruz his top target. If Cruz is smart, he’ll find ways to agree with or co-opt Trump. I’ll be surprised if Cruz fires directly back–he has no real incentive to get down in the mud with Trump–but anything can happen.
4) Rubio Needs To Make A Move In Iowa To Avoid Giuliani’s Fate
Despite sky-high favorability ratings in Iowa and the belief among many strategists and pundits that he represents the Republican party’s best hope in 2016, Florida Sen. Marco Rubio doesn’t have a polling lead anywhere. Not nationally, not in Iowa, not in New Hampshire, not in South Carolina, not in Nevada. The map is quickly becoming his biggest opponent, which is why so many professional primary watchers are worried that Rubio may have a Rudy Giuliani problem: yeah, it’s nice that everyone in the know thinks you’re the best, but at some point you actually have to win a primary or two to remain viable.
Current New Hampshire polls show Rubio in second place in the state, but he’s still a long way behind Trump. So what can he do that change that? He needs a strong showing in Iowa. A win seems unlikely, but a second place finish might be possible if Carson’s poll numbers continue to drop and Trump’s shine begins to fade. Rubio needs a lot of momentum coming out of Iowa if he wants a shot at winning New Hampshire. And he needs a big showing in New Hampshire, perhaps even a win, if he wants to stay competitive ahead of the so-called SEC primary in March.
While Rubio might be able to siphon away votes from Bush and Fiorina, and maybe even Carson, he probably won’t have much luck convincing Trump supporters to join Team Marco. That means Rubio will have to go directly at Cruz. Rubio is viewed skeptically by immigration hard-liners, so he may try to attack Cruz from the right on immigration. In the wake of the San Bernardino terrorist attacks, Rubio–an unapologetic interventionist–will almost certainly attack Cruz on national security. The Wall Street Journal‘s Bret Stephens previewed that very attack in an editorial published on Monday night, claiming that Cruz’s and Obama’s foreign policy visions are indistinguishable.
Will Republican debate watchers buy that line of attack? If so, will it make a big enough dent in Cruz’s standing to give Rubio a shot at a second place finish in Iowa?