The intensifying feud between GOP presidential candidates Sen. Marco RubioMarco RubioSenators introduce new Iran sanctions Senate intel panel has not seen Nunes surveillance documents: lawmakers With no emerging leaders, no clear message, Democrats flounder MORE (Fla.) and Sen. Ted CruzTed CruzHow 'Big Pharma' stifles pharmaceutical innovation AIPAC must reach out to President Trump Under pressure, Dems hold back Gorsuch support MORE (Texas) will be at the center of Tuesday’s Republican debate in Las Vegas.
The two senators occupy the top tier of the GOP race with front-runner Donald TrumpDonald TrumpMcCain says he hasn't met with Trump since inauguration Mulvaney: Let states figure out 'essential health benefits' How President Trump can restore sanity to America's labor laws MORE, and have increasingly battled for leverage.
Rubio, who spent part of his childhood in Las Vegas, will enjoy a home field advantage at The Venetian.
The Florida Republican is rising in the polls, and has emerged as the top establishment pick for the GOP nomination.
Cruz is also moving up in polls, and has his hopes set on winning the Iowa caucuses on Feb. 1.
He’s been focused in recent weeks on attacking Cruz, who has been doing his best to send a message to conservatives that Rubio is too centrist to be trusted.
Cruz, a college debate champion, has been testing attack lines in interviews over the past weeks, portraying Rubio as a big-government neoconservative who wants to topple every Middle Eastern dictator within range. Rubio, for his part, is attacking Cruz for being feckless on national security due to his support for legislation weakening the surveillance powers of the National Security Agency.
Veteran GOP strategist Charlie Black, who is neutral in the 2016 primaries, said Rubio will be ready for Cruz on Tuesday night given his rounds in Senate debates with skeptics of U.S. interventionism.
“Marco's already been through these debates in the Senate with Cruz and [presidential candidate Sen. Rand] Paul [R-Ky.] on metadata,” Black said in a telephone interview Thursday.
“My guess is Marco's smart enough to say that we've had this horrible terrorist attack in San Bernardino” and after it the intelligence authorities were limited in their ability to track historical cellphone data because of legislation supported by Cruz and President Obama.
“So explain that, Ted Cruz,” Black added, mimicking an accusatory voice Rubio might use in the debate.
Rubio and Cruz will be performing for the at-home audience — and donors such as Venetian owner Sheldon Adelson, a national security-obsessed billionaire who spent around $100 million supporting Republicans during the 2012 presidential election.
Adelson has yet to publicly commit to a 2016 candidate but he and his wife Miriam have given nominal donations to Rubio’s joint fundraising account and rumors have been reported for weeks that he is already sold on Rubio.
Rubio took in less super-PAC money than Cruz at the midyear reporting, but recent endorsements suggest he is fast winning over the GOP establishment, which tends to like his traditionally hawkish foreign policy views.
Former Speaker Newt Gingrich (R-Ga.), a presidential candidate four years ago, said Vegas poses a singular test for Rubio, Cruz and the remaining field: Which candidate has the deepest understanding of global jihad, and who can best articulate their plan to inoculate an anxious nation against the jihadist “virus.”
“We are in a world-wide campaign against a virus ... which is spreading on the Internet,” Gingrich said in a telephone interview Thursday.
“It's a mortal threat to our survival,” he added, saying he hopes candidates demonstrate an understanding that ISIS is “just a symptom” of a much larger infection.
The recent terrorist attacks and Trump’s call for a ban on Muslims entering the United States suggest security will be at the center of the debate.
“National security ... I think that will be 95 percent of the evening,” agreed Rick Wilson, a strategist for a pro-Rubio super-PAC.
Wilson thinks this will benefit Rubio because he is the “one candidate with a granular plan for ISIS.”
“Even the ISIS plan on his website you go through — tick, tick, tick. With Trump, it's ‘stop Muslim immigration, build a wall.’ They’re one-day hits and then he moves on to whatever prank he dreams up next.
“Marco has an opportunity to lay out [in detail] what his counterterrorism strategy and defense strategy is,” Wilson added.
Both Rubio and Cruz must also have game plans on how to deal with Trump.
Cruz has done everything in his power to avoid a collision with Trump, while Rubio has been more willing to take the GOP front-runner on.
While Rubio may be smart to engage Cruz on national security during the debate, Republican strategists interviewed agree that the biggest mistake Rubio could make would be to ape Ohio Gov. John Kasich and launch scripted attacks against Trump.
Engaging Trump would be a devastating mistake, said Gingrich, adding that none of the candidates has the skills needed to brawl effectively with Trump and so they are best served steering clear entirely.
Trump is “too smart, too ruthless, and he likes fighting, he likes being a counter-puncher,” said Gingrich.
Rubio should talk directly to the American people and lay out his foreign policy vision, said Gingrich.
Wilson said he hopes above all that Rubio sticks to what has been to date a winning formula. "It seems really simple but Marco has to keep on keeping on," he said.
“To be the guy who's serious, smart, granular on foreign policy and defense particularly. But also the guy who offers an optimistic vision for the country going forward and who's not part of the clown show, the circus and the back biting that this race has devolved into.”