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Presidential Horse Race 2016: Media preps for Ted Cruz vs. Marco Rubio title match

What a relief. Donald Trump announced he will take part in the December 15 CNN Republican presidential debate.

Lisa Hagen of The Hill reports The Donald told the Washington Post, “When you’re leading in the polls, I think it’s too big of a risk to not do the debate. I don’t think I have the kind of leverage I’d like to have in a deal and I Ted Cruz and Marco Rubiodon’t want to take the chance of hurting my campaign. So I’ll do the debate.

“If I don’t do 'em, the problem will be, ‘Oh, he’s chicken, he’s using that as an excuse.’ Every single person doing the debate would knock the hell out of me and say I’m afraid to be there. The one thing I’m not in life is a chicken.”

CNN President Jeff Zucker said earlier the network wouldn’t pay Trump $5 million to appear.

The Donald withdrew his demand and on we go…

Ben Carson crams on foreign policy, but the exam was over weeks ago

Wednesday’s terror attack in California will once again highlight national security in the Republican presidential race, and that’s just about the last thing Ben Carson wants to hear.

The former neurosurgeon stumbled in several instances after the Paris attacks and his subsequent trip to Jordan to examine the refugee situation in the Middle East is seen by some as too little, too late for him to regain his footing in the race.

Carson’s standing has fallen in recent Iowa polls and there’s trouble in the conservative South as well.

Katie Glueck of Politico reports, “According to nearly two dozen Republican voters, activists and operatives in South Carolina, Carson has lost his momentum in this first-in-the-South primary state, just as the polls say he has in Iowa and nationwide as well…

“A state party official, who is publicly neutral and so requested anonymity in order to speak freely, said that momentum in the state increasingly seems to be with Cruz and Rubio, both senators who can point to their committee work and official trips abroad to help burnish their national security credentials.”

The last bit is particularly interesting as Ted Cruz would seem to be the likely inheritor of Carson’s conservative voters. Cruz appeals to the same evangelical constituency as Ben and his status as a fellow “outsider” would be attractive to folks who might have misgivings about the good doctor’s readiness to assume the role of Commander in Chief.

Rubio is also viewed as strong on foreign policy in neoconservative establishment circles, but as people start linking his line of thinking with the legacy of George W. Bush, there could be some hesitation.

For the present, Carson’s most immediate problem is what to do about Cruz’s momentum in Iowa. Their battle will be key in determining who will ultimately face Donald Trump to win in the state.

David M. Drucker of the Washington Examiner reports, “The retired pediatric neurosurgeon is still among the most-liked candidates in the GOP nominating contest, and has been particularly strong among evangelical Christians, a crucial voting bloc. Whether they stick with him, or bolt to other candidates could impact the contest from top to bottom.”

For an article about Ben Carson, Drucker spends a lot of time talking about Ted Cruz. People on the ground in the Hawkeye State predict Cruz will come out on top over Trump on February 1 because the Texas senator has superior organization and The Donald is hoping his large crop of new voters will turn out on Caucus Night.

As I’ve said before, Iowa is unique because participation in the caucuses requires a lot more time and effort than a simple “pull of the lever” in a typical voting booth. The more motivated your supporters are, the better you’re going to do there.

Carson no doubt still enjoys a core group of solid backers – the question is whether the people who are wavering will stick with him when there appears to be someone in the field who’s just as conservative, just as anti-establishment and perhaps more qualified on the leading issue of the day.

And while Ben is still seen as an honest and likable guy, he does have his detractors.

Eddie Scarry of the Washington Examiner reports, “MSNBC ‘Morning Joe’ host Joe Scarborough predicted on Wednesday that Ben Carson will stay in the race for the Republican presidential nomination all the way to the convention, despite his fading poll numbers, and accused Carson of running simply to boost his national profile and secure a lucrative TV gig.”

I don’t watch “Morning Joe,” but Scarborough’s assessment of Carson’s integrity is pretty insulting. Sure, Ben has said in the past that he would enjoy doing TV in his retirement, but to run for president solely for selfish material reasons just doesn’t seem like his character.

It appears unlikely at this point that Carson will recover from his recent slip in the polls. Republican voters’ attention has turned elsewhere since he rose to the top in late October and it’s hard to imagine he’ll regain the traction he once had.

A case could be made that he’d make a great vice president nominee… but that’s a discussion for another time.

Media preps for Cruz vs. Rubio title match

For all the talk of Ben Carson fading, opinion polls have actually remained fairly stable over the past few months. Carly Fiorina did receive a brief bump in late September after the second debate, only to fall back to her current position in the low single digits. Jeb Bush has sunk further, but only by a few points.

Meanwhile, Donald Trump has established a consistent 25-30% total, which doesn’t seem to go up or down by much.

Really, the only true movement has been from Marco Rubio and Ted Cruz, who now sit in second and third (tied with Carson) respectively in the latest national Quinnipiac poll.

Naturally the media is jumping all over the Rubio vs. Cruz storyline and in this case it makes sense. The Republican establishment has all but settled on Rubio -- and Cruz, along with Trump, is consolidating conservative support. (Note: Trump also draws from self-described liberals and moderates.)

Conservative commentator Rich Lowry (in Politico) says the Rubio vs. Cruz match-up is what we’ve all been waiting for. “The initial conventional wisdom about the Republican field — that it was the most talented in decades — didn’t seem borne out as it was over-awed by Trump. But if the race eventually has Rubio and Cruz among the finalists, or winnows down to a Rubio-Cruz fight, it will feature supremely skilled campaigners who are eloquent and sure-footed and represent the best next-generation politicians the party has to offer.”

It does seem like a dream match-up – the fiery principled conservative message carrying Cruz versus the attractive, articulate former Tea Party favorite Rubio with a conservative voting record but questionable ideological foundation. No candidate who promoted amnesty the way Rubio did could be considered a true conservative.

There’s plenty of evidence that the two candidates also view each other as serious rivals.

Eli Stokols of Politico reports how Ted and Marco made a pitch this week to prominent Republican Jewish voters, with Rubio stepping up the promises to pander to the group. “He vowed to fight anti-Semitism, which many politically active members of the American Jewish community think is growing worldwide. He outlined a plan to fight ISIL, and he spoke with greater depth and conviction on specific issues affecting Israel.”

I’m sure he promised the moon and then some. All establishment politicians tend to do that.

Cruz merely said he’d tear up the Iran nuclear deal, move the U.S. embassy to Jerusalem and called Obama an apologist for terrorists. He reiterated his view that getting militarily involved in Syria to achieve regime change would be a mistake, because we have no idea who would come after.

For what it’s worth, Lindsey Graham sided with Rubio at the event, cutting into Cruz for his Middle East policy views as well as Ted’s electability argument. That should tell you a lot right there. With friends like Lindsey Graham -- who needs enemies?

The Rubio/Cruz battle has even divided a husband and wife team, as billionaire Sheldon Adelson likes Marco… but his wife Miriam favors Ted. Both candidates are seen as strong supporters of Israel, but their visions differ.

If the polling trends keep moving in a similar direction, I’m sure we’ll be hearing a lot more about the impending “fight” between Rubio and Cruz. That’s one sparring match that might be worth a pay-per-view premium to behold.

Jeb’s new confidence isn’t fooling anyone

Finally this week, Jeb Bush has been full of energy lately, running multi-million dollar TV ads and campaigning as if the nation’s increased focus on national security issues would make a difference for him.

It hasn’t.

Trip Gabriel and Ashley Parker of the New York Times report, “But instead of winning a second look from voters, Mr. Bush continues to be ignored, and to languish in the polls, even as the nation contends with what he calls ‘serious times that require serious leadership.’”

And in another sign of desperation, the Bush folks have even accused Donald Trump of stealing their policy ideas. The plans are similar, true – but to say it’s outright plagiarism? That’s going a little far.

The Bush team is apparently meeting this weekend with key donors who are getting anxious about the former frontrunner’s lack of progress in the race. The writing is on the wall for anyone who supports Jeb – they’re either ignoring it or simply can’t read.

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