Donald Trump

5 Things to Watch for in Tonight's GOP Presidential Debate

The race heats up as Trump, Cruz, and Rubio battle over foreign policy and more.

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CNBC

Tonight's primetime GOP primary debate will feature nine candidates: Donald Trump, Ben Carson, Ted Cruz, Marco Rubio, Jeb Bush, Carly Fiorina, Chris Christie, John Kasich, and, finally, Rand Paul—who made it to the mainstage only at the last minute, after CNN, which is broadcasting the event from Las Vegas, loosened the rules to allow him on stage after accounting for the Kentucky senator's strong showing in Iowa. A separate undercard debate between four candidates with low poll numbers—Mike Huckabee, George Pataki, Lindsey Graham and Rick Santorum—is set for earlier in the evening.

Tonight's debate is important because it comes at a time when many voters are starting to pay attention in earnest, and because the contours of this unusually chaotic race are starting to become more clear: Jeb Bush and Rand Paul are struggling in both polls and fundraising, and have faced repeated speculation that they are about to drop out of the race. Ben Carson has fallen rapidly from co-frontrunner status, and Carly Fiorina's campaign has struggled to gain traction outside of the debates. Chris Christie is surging in New Hampshire, but is still posting low polling numbers overall.

The Iowa caucus is still six weeks away, and no actual votes have been cast, so nothing is set in stone. But many observers increasingly see the race as a three-way contest between Donald Trump, Texas Sen. Ted Cruz, and Florida Sen. Marco Rubio, with Trump representing the party's populist furies, Rubio carrying the establishment, and Cruz trying—sort of—to split the difference between the two.

The staff of Reason will be live-tweeting both the mainstage debate and the undercard tonight starting at 6 p.m. ET, so make sure to check back in this evening. In the meantime, here are five things to watch for as you wait.

1) A whole lot of discussion about foreign policy and national security in the wake of terrorist attacks in Paris and San Bernardino: Moderator Wolf Blitzer has made it clear that this will be the dominant issue during tonight's debate: "We're going to focus on the #1 issue facing the American people right now, and all the polls suggest that it is the fear of terrorism, ISIS," he said on CNN over the weekend. Blitzer will be joined by CNN political correspondent Dana Bash and conservative radio Hugh Hewitt, who is known for his focus on foreign policy issues.

2) Ted Cruz vs. Marco Rubio on foreign policy: The pair have been going after each other rather aggressively on foreign policy following the terrorist attacks in Paris and San Berndardino, California, with Cruz taking a somewhat less overtly hawkish stance on military involvement in Syria, as well as electronic surveillance issues. This is probably the clearest policy divide in the GOP field right now, and most of the candidates are going to want to weigh in, with Chris Christie, Jeb Bush, and Carly Fiorina taking a more hawkish, pro-surveillance stance and Rand Paul—who has also been taking shots at Rubio recently—joining Cruz in attacking the party consensus.

3) Donald Trump vs. Ted Cruz on which one is a maniac:  At the same time that Cruz has been going after Rubio, he's also been pulled into a separate fight with Trump, who called him a "maniac" the other day. The proximate cause for this insult battle was Cruz's ecent closed-door warning to a group of potential donors that Trump might not have the judgment to be president; Trump, meanwhile, framed his "maniac" remark as a response to Cruz's attacks on Senate leadership. But the nuances of this feud may not be all that apparent or important tonight, as it looks more like a straightforward insult battle. Cruz has already responded on Twitter with a video reference to Flashdance (welcome to 2015, folks), which suggests the tone this squabble has taken on. 

4) Whatever notably awful thing Donald Trump says next—and the reaction: In recent weeks, Trump has been running his campaign like a radio shock jock, calling, among other things, for banning Muslim immigration to the United States, shutting down parts of the Internet to stop terrorists, and a mandatory death penalty for all cop killers. He's generated a lot of negative attention in the process, but overall, it seems to be helping him: The most recent national polls show him climbing past the 30 percent ceiling many had imagined for him and posting numbers well into the mid 30s, and even hitting 41 percent in a Monmouth University poll published yesterday. However, Trump's attacks on Cruz this week did earn him his first pushback from major players in the world of conservative talk radio, including Mark Levin and Rush Limbaugh, suggesting that there may be some things he has a harder time getting away with saying.

5) Any discussion whatsoever of the giant spending bill now working its way through Congress: While the overall emphasis on national security is understandable given the recent attacks, it's still notable just how little the GOP candidates have talked about the budget situation in Congress. Part of that may be because the details of the deal are still in flux, but the specifics of the $1.1 trillion spending deal—including some controversial electronic surveillance provisions—have become more and more clear over the past few days as negotiations have made progress, and the full package is likely to be released tonight, right around the time that the debate takes place. Given that future presidents will be responsible for signing such things, it would be nice to see what the GOP candidates think of the one that's about to be sent to the White House for approval. 

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  1. I find it unacceptable on many levels that New Jersey Democrat Chris Christie is included in any of these debates. Who the eff is actually going to vote for him in the primary? Cut him loose.

    1. He hasn’t figured out yet that his anti-2A stance is going to crush him like – his own weight imploding to create a human singularity.

    2. Well you’re more likely to be crushed by Chris Christie than by a terrorist.

    3. Unfortunately, his numbers look better than Rand’s.

      1. That’s OK. Rand is kind of an experiment with the Geezer Oligarch Party… bait to draw attention and support away from the LP and into the maw of the looter-prohibitionist birth-forcer soft machine.

    4. I wish they had included Graham in the main debate – it would give some idea of the range of opinions on the issues and make people realize that Trump ain’t necessarily the scariest whacko running. I don’t think Graham all on his own is so scary, but to realize he represents a solid fraction of the hardline GOP who really do believe Edward Snowden is a traitor, the Pentagon is dangerously under-funded, we need to be killing far more people and imprisoning the ones who object to the killings – that’s scary. And this is the chair of the Senate Appropriations subcommittee for the state department and foreign affairs, the chair of the Judiciary subcommittee on crime and terrorism and a former member of the select Intelligence committee and the Homeland Security committee – that’s really scary that this nutjob is apparently pretty damn mainstream.

      1. Seniority for chair assignments is stupid.

    5. We should have a drinking game, every time he says he was a U.S. attorney for the District of New Jersey, or that he was appointed US Attorney we all take a down a shot, how he spent his time fighting terrorism we take a shot. If he continues to lie about being appointed on 9/10 we down the whole bottle. We should all be pretty well toasted by the time he finishes his first sentence.

      1. I was drunk by the time he finished his second question, though he didn’t specifically mention what I said above but the implications to them were strong, so that was good enough. I was waisted by the time he make his closing statement and I’ll be damned that his didn’t bring up his lie again about being appointed Sept 10th, I had to open another bottle. It was fun at first but know I need a liver transplant.

    6. Who the eff is actually going to vote for him in the primary? Cut him loose.

      That dude’s nickname is L6 for a reason – do you grasp the chaos from ‘cutting loose’ such a gravity well?

      May as well cross the streams while you’re at it.

  2. How about any detailed discussion for once on climate change? Particularly in light of the just agreed upon accord in Paris, which if you believe the right is a debacle of unprecedented proportions. That’s foreign policy AND domestic policy, you know. Just whining about the solutions coming from the left when you only ignore the issue is kind of sad.

    1. When have 5 yr plans ever failed us, comrade.

      1. Then the GOP better speak up, or forever hold their peace. No one is waiting for them.

    2. Some people support smacking you in the head with a baseball bat, some suggest smacking you in the head with a 9 iron, others argue for using a croquet mallet. Instead of just whining about people wanting to smack you in the head with sporting equipment why don’t you stop ignoring the issue, use some constructive criticism, make a suggestion as to what exactly we should smack you in the head with?

      1. It is known that Jack’s preferred head smack delivery system is a 14″ black dildo.

      2. Freedom? “Skin me alive, but don’t throw me in that freedom patch!”

    3. accord in Paris, which if you believe the right is a debacle of unprecedented proportions.

      You might want to reconsider that comment. Lefties are not too happy either. Unlike you, they realize the accord is just a pile of empty promises, thank FSM!

      1. Oh, I know they’re not. See hansen’s comments. But the left, and their candidates are weighing in on it. Sanders isn’t entirely pleased either.

        But to date, it’s been almost completely ignored in GOP debates, which was my point.

        1. As it should be, since it’s a non-binding agreement with no mechanisms and, not having been confirmed with the advice and consent of the Senate, is not the law of the United States.

          1. Then ignore away!

      2. Here is my suggestion. Everyone of those candidates should be asked their opinion on that deal, and any alternative if they think one is necessary. Inquiring minds want to know.

        1. herpaderp

    4. I hope all the candidates all just laugh hysterically if/when a “climate change” question is asked. That would delight me.

      1. I think they will!

    5. How about any detailed discussion for once on climate change?

      You have not demonstrated the mental ability to engage in a “detailed discussion” on a subject of scientific interest, so it’s not going to happen.

  3. I for one will be watching my vodka & tonic disappear

    1. oops, slides back behind the sofa.

  4. I don’t think that the fear of terrorism cracks into my top 1000 fears. Fear of the American public’s and government response to terrorism would be in my top 3.

    1. Yes. There have been 26 lightning deaths in the US in 2015 so far, and only 14 terrorism deaths at San Bernardino.

      1. Great! Now the bastards’ll tax us to ban lightning…

  5. Fear of lightening striking me is definitely higher on my list than my family being a victim of a terrorist strike. It probably ranks just below fear of being the victim of a falling coconut. Those things can be deadly.

    1. Honestly, after all those delicious curries i’ve made out of their cream, i’d not blame coconuts for wanting to kill me.

      1. Lucky for us, the plant kingdom proletariat is unusually docile.

  6. “We’re going to focus on the #1 issue facing the American people right now, and all the polls suggest that it is the fear of terrorism, ISIS,”

    Bullshit. Fear is CNN’s number one issue because that’s what CNN is in the business of selling.

    The number one issue facing the American people for the 226th straight year in a row is the issue of getting up in the morning and going to work so you can keep a roof over your head and food on your table and shoes on your kids’ feet. Anytime you can spend time worrying about anything else is good times because it means you aren’t worrying about keeping your job and not being able to pay your bills and starving to death naked and shivering in a cardboard box behind the 7-11 dumpster.

    1. Fear puts asses on the couch and keeps ’em there through the commercial breaks.

  7. With Cruz’s still at debating, I expect him to make his move and take on Trump live at a debate someday.

    It’s probably still too early in the process.

    1. It’s probably still too early in the process.

      Agreed. He’s going to waiting until Trump goes into one of his maniacal tirades over dropping in the polls in Iowa or New Hampshire or somewhere, then go in for the kill shot.

      1. Teflon Trump won’t care. Nothing sticks to him except that rug on his head.

        1. Precisely why Reason writers ought to step aside and let Scott Adams take over Trump coverage. The guy even predicted that someone would mistakenly refer to him as “president”. Attacking personalities is not a libertarian strong point. If someone were paying me to attack GOP hopefuls, I’d focus on Rubio and Cruz, Christie, Jeb Clampitt and the Mad Doctor as the most likely to destroy individual rights, embroil us in major warfare and again ruin the economy with assed-forfeiture looterfests (then blame it on the securities market).

      2. When did Iowa become a key state?

        “What do Bill Clinton, George H.W. Bush and Ronald Reagan have in common?

        These former presidents all lost in the Iowa caucuses, but won their party’s nomination and, of course, the subsequent general elections.

        What about Mike Huckabee, Dick Gephardt and Tom Harkin? They came in first in Iowa but failed to become their party’s standard-bearer.”

        This may scare the crap out of a lot of people.

        1. One does not expect consistency from a gaggle of irrational mystics.

  8. What is clear is that whatever said at this “debate” is irrelevant as to whom becomes president. Not a single one gained his financial support from potential voters, but instead a sugar daddy. They can pay millions to get their message out, but what is important is who will support them and how many of those people are out there.

    1. Unfortunately, “Nixon’s anti-Libertarian Law” signed within 24 hours of the forming of the LP has made you and me the unwilling supporters of “both” the democratic communist party and the republican nationalsocialist party. By writing government subsidies proportional to entrenchment into the Internal Revenue Code, Nixon’s base in Congress wrote “conservatism”–in its fossilized and barnacle-encrusted definition– the law of the land. Any attention the media waste on the libertarian party yields them a tiny fraction of the bribe money the same time investment would yield from covering “both” the descendants of Hitler and the followers of Stalin. The income tax of 1848 is, in 2015, still the looters’ primary weapon for blocking progress toward freedom.

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