Showdown in Vegas: Trump, Cruz seek upper hand in crucial debate

Greg Nash

The fifth and final Republican debate of 2015 — and the penultimate one before the Iowa caucuses on Feb. 1 — will be held on Tuesday night in Las Vegas.

Nine contenders will take the stage for the main clash on CNN, but the most intense focus will fall on two candidates: Businessman Donald TrumpDonald TrumpClinton widens lead over Trump nationally Polls show tight Clinton-Trump race in 2016 battlegrounds Economic turmoil threatens Clinton MORE, who has led the national polls for several months, and Sen. Ted CruzTed CruzTrump hires ex-Cruz aide as communications director Overnight Tech: Judiciary leaders question internet transition plan | Clinton to talk tech policy | Snowden's robot | Trump's big digital push Kasich doesn't expect to speak at convention MORE (Texas), who is rising fast and has snatched the lead from Trump in Iowa. 

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Third-placed Sen. Marco RubioMarco RubioThe Trail 2016: Warren takes VP batting practice Abortion ruling roils race for the White House, Senate US, Mexico have mutual ambassadors for first time in over a year MORE (Fla.) will also be hoping to consolidate his position as a candidate able to straddle the GOP’s conservative-establishment divide.

Meanwhile, middle-ranking contenders will be looking for a breakout moment to vault into the top tier, while the candidates struggling for traction will seek to avoid the fate of former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee who, for the first time, is relegated to the earlier “undercard” debate. 

Here’s what the candidates on the main stage need to do at this crucial moment in the race. 

Businessman Donald Trump

Trump is polling at almost double the level of the second-placed Cruz in national surveys. That means the real estate magnate will be center stage — exactly where he likes to be — on Tuesday night.  

Trump can expect to face tough questioning on his recent call to bar Muslims from entering the United States, but several recent polls have indicated that a large swath of the GOP electorate agrees with him. 

A much trickier question for Trump is how to handle Cruz. The reality TV star has blasted the senator in recent days, telling “Fox News Sunday” that Cruz behaves in the Senate “like a bit of a maniac” and asserting on CNN’s “State of the Union” that he has “far better judgment than Ted.”  

If Trump backs away from those attacks in the debate, he risks looking uncharacteristically weak. But if he goes after the Texan, a skilled debater, there is the possibility of him getting caught with the kind of verbal uppercut he has avoided in the four debates so far. 

Sen. Ted Cruz (Texas)

Can Cruz keep his momentum going? He has enjoyed strong showings in the debates to date, but other candidates are much more likely to train their fire on him now that he has risen in the polls. 

Rubio, for instance, suggested during an appearance on NBC’s “Meet the Press” on Sunday that Cruz’s tough talk on national security was misleading and accused him of adopting an “isolationist” approach.

Cruz will want to come out of Tuesday night’s clash with his conservative credentials intact, even as he seeks to parry whatever attacks Trump throws his way.

One more strong debate performance could put Cruz in pole position for the nomination.

Sen. Marco Rubio (Fla.) 

Rubio’s candidacy is at a crucial juncture.

He has risen steadily in the polls and now places second in the RealClearPolitics (RCP) average in New Hampshire. He has put in polished debate performances so far and had one of the most memorable moments of the election cycle when he rebuffed an attack from his old mentor, former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush, in late October during the third debate.

But Rubio has to play a complex game, simultaneously reassuring conservatives that he is tough enough for them while also not allowing establishment candidates such as Bush or Christie to winnow away at support from the center right. 

While Rubio has performed well at all of the debates, it might be time for him to take a risk in hopes of stealing the show.

Retired neurosurgeon Ben Carson

Carson’s poll ratings have been in free fall since doubts emerged about his capacity to deal with national security issues in the wake of terrorist attacks in Paris and San Bernardino, Calif.

It was only a little more than a month ago that Carson briefly surpassed Trump for the lead in the RCP national average. At the time, he was winning the support of about one in four Republican voters. Since then, his support has been cut in half and he has sunk to fourth place. 

It will be tough for Carson to turn his position around in the debate, especially given his penchant for a low-key approach. 

Former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush

The debates so far have been miserable experiences for Bush.   

He last ran for office in 2002, and his rustiness has showed. Now he is in fifth place in the RCP national average and one place lower in New Hampshire, a state that he has guaranteed he will win.

Bush has been working with a communications coach in recent weeks and his supporters insist he has become better on the campaign trail. But whether that translates into the kind of standout moment he needs in Vegas remains to be seen.

New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie

Christie is on the move in New Hampshire, where he has risen from the bottom rungs to third place in the RCP average.

The New Jersey governor is pugnacious in debates and more than happy to mix it up with rivals as Sen. Rand PaulRand PaulTrump flexes new digital muscle Republicans question Trump's trip to Scotland Hate TV customer service? So does your senator MORE (R-Ky.), among others, has discovered. Christie needs another forceful performance, especially focused upon elbowing his center-right rivals (Bush, Ohio Gov. John Kasich and, to some degree, Rubio) out of the way.

Christie’s climb to the nomination remains steep, and he needs to become the dominant establishment candidate if he is to have any realistic chance at all. 

Ohio Gov. John Kasich, businesswoman Carly Fiorina and Sen. Rand Paul (Ky.) 

These three made it onto the main stage — in Paul’s case, by the skin of his teeth — but the chances of any of them coming from their current positions to win the nomination seem vanishingly small.

Their debating skills diverge considerably — Fiorina is a consistently fluent communicator while Kasich is much more uneven — but it is hard to see any of the three shifting the course of the race in one night.