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Presidential Horse Race 2016: Will tonight’s debate be ‘Fight Night in Vegas’ all over again?

The last time a group of Republican presidential candidates gathered in Las Vegas to debate, a fight nearly broke out.

I wrote after the debate, “There were jabs, body blows, upper cuts, left-right combinations, and even… plenty of low blows. The best of fight referees would have had trouble keeping a hold on these people, and there would have been plenty of time spent in their respective corners for several of them (for bad behavior) – with lectures to match.”

Mitt Romney and Rick PerryIt was that contentious, especially the exchange between Mitt Romney and Rick Perry where the latter accused the former of being a hypocrite on illegal immigration.

If only some of those charges had stuck to Romney, he might not have won the nomination. If he doesn’t win the nomination, then….who knows. Mitt did win, then lost to Obama and the rest is history.

At any rate, fast-forwarding to this year, the main focus of tonight’s debate will once again be on the man in the middle, Donald Trump. The Real Clear Politics national polling average shows Trump with a huge 13-point lead, followed by a group of three (Ted Cruz, Marco Rubio and Ben Carson) still within striking distance.

Though it’s always possible one of the other candidates could break out and join the top group, it’s looking increasingly likely that the nominee is going to come from those four. And if momentum is an indicator, Ted Cruz has a darn good shot to reach Trump.

Byron York of the Washington Examiner writes that unlike the previous debates, Cruz will be the real center of attention. “The Cruz camp expects attacks to come from Trump, from Rubio, and perhaps a few others. Apart from Trump, whose jabs can come from anywhere — he calls Cruz ‘a bit of a maniac’ — it's likely most of the criticism will be on national security grounds, with Rubio likely to repeat charges that Cruz is an ‘isolationist’ who voted to ‘weaken U.S. intelligence,’ who opposes funding American troops, and would cut aid to Israel.”

We’ll leave the subplot of Cruz vs. Rubio to another time. But York has a point. Maybe it will be “fight night in Vegas” once again, though Cruz is a much better candidate – and debater – than either Romney or Perry were four years ago.

Ted Cruz won’t get caught glaring at an opponent and begging for the moderator to intervene.

York also reported that Cruz prepares for the debates in his own way, eschewing rallies or public appearances on the day of the event in favor of quietly concentrating on the task at hand.

Tonight’s debate is important for Cruz, but it won’t be the end-all of the campaign for him either positive or negative. He’s got the resources, organization and campaign stamina to last for the duration.

The same can’t be said for the lower-tier competitors, Jeb Bush, John Kasich, Carly Fiorina, Chris Christie and Rand Paul, all of whom must see the Las Vegas event as perhaps a final chance to distinguish him or herself from the field. CNN even allowed polling from the early states to factor into who makes the main stage this time, otherwise Kasich, Fiorina, Christie and Paul wouldn’t have met the 3.5% minimum national polling threshold.

Jeb Bush’s whopping 4.2% must make him feel great – he easily qualified.

The next debate isn’t for another month (January 14 in South Carolina) and it’s uncertain whether some of these candidates, including those in the undercard debate, can hold out that long with no traction, little money and very little hope of eventually winning the nomination.

It should be noted that Christie has managed to crawl up to third place in New Hampshire, so he would be the least likely of the non-big four to drop out at this point.

One way or another, tonight’s debate looks to be an entertaining and hopefully enlightening event in the presidential race. With any luck there will be enough substance to help people along in their decision-making for this all-important election.

(Note: Here’s Politico’s everything you need to know about tonight’s debate.)

If Donald Trump is Superman, Iowa may be his kryptonite

The clear frontrunner for months now, Donald Trump would seem to be cruising along in the presidential race. Similar to the “next in line” candidates in the past several Republican primary cycles, he’s raced to the lead and stayed there despite time, events and tons of negative media attention.

But there are signs he still could have a serious weakness. It’s called Iowa.

John Fund of National Review writes, “Donald Trump’s big talk, braggadocio, and boldness have carried him far. But ‘gravity’ — the wearing off of his freshness, the cumulative weight of his excesses, and voters taking a closer look at him before they actually cast a ballot — might well bring Trump down to earth, as Cruz recently suggested in a speech to a group of donors.

“Even Superman became weak and vulnerable when exposed to kryptonite, and in Trump’s case, the equivalent could be exposure to a political environment in which his 91 percent name ID is ‘trumped’ by voters’ decision to finally compare him with other lesser-known candidates.”

Through reading his columns I know Fund is no Trump fan, but he makes several interesting truthful observations. With first Ben Carson’s trip to the lead spot in Iowa and now Ted Cruz, it proves the state’s voters are definitely open to looking at Trump alternatives.

While Carson still polls decently in The Hawkeye State, it’s doubtful he could make a comeback again. Marco Rubio could also conceivably rise there, though as I’ve previously emphasized, he lacks a message (other than “I have a great life story”) to rally around.

Not so for Ted Cruz. Cruz has carefully plotted a course to success in Iowa, cultivating leaders in each county and building an impressive list of endorsements, including social conservative Bob Vander Plaats and Congressman Steve King. Cruz has staying power.

If Trump ends up losing there, which is looking increasingly likely, Cruz will be Trump’s kryptonite. The Donald’s aura of invincibility will be shattered and as Fund suggests, people in other states will start looking at previously passed-over candidates as possible alternatives.

In this very unusual year, nothing is certain. Trump may very well win in Iowa and just like in the movies, Superman will have “returned.” Time will tell.

Pass the popcorn.

Ben Carson’s flubs hurt him, Trump’s made him stronger

Another way Donald Trump’s appeared to be Superman-like is his ability to rebound from poorly worded statements that he’s needed to explain later. It started back in August with his post-debate remarks about Fox News’ Megyn Kelly and has continued all the way through last week with his temporary Muslim immigration ban announcement.

The pattern is familiar. Trump says or Tweets something. The establishment media (and his reactionary opponents) go haywire. He subsequently clarifies but avoids apologizing. His poll numbers go up.

The same effect hasn’t been realized for equally gaffe-prone Ben Carson, whose campaign certainly appears to have been damaged over a series of verbal flubs and attempts at clarification.

Why does Trump go on stronger while Carson recedes?

W. James Antle III of the Washington Examiner theorizes, “While Trump and Carson are both political neophytes, the former has far greater experience dealing with the national media than the latter. Trump has been widely interviewed, has a proven track record of generating ratings as a reality television star, has personal relationships with some of the high-profile journalists and TV personalities covering him and began talking about political issues in public years before finally running for office.”

In other words, it’s a question of style. Trump is loud and Carson is soft. Trump looks confident and Carson seems hesitant. Antle’s notion makes sense, though it can’t completely explain the poll number drop.

I think Carson hasn’t recovered from his mistakes because his voters have a viable alternative in Ted Cruz who doesn’t tend to make mistakes and rests on a proven record of fighting the establishment and the status quo.

Ben’s people still like him regardless of what he says… they’re just turning to Cruz because he embodies many of Carson’s conservative qualities without the sizable competence flaws.

Voters want leaders who know the issues and are able to explain them. That’s Carson’s weak point and it shows in his numbers.

Trump hits high in new poll

Finally today, Donald Trump may be falling back a bit in Iowa but he’s stronger than ever nationally, at least according to a new poll.

Jonathan Easley of The Hill reports, “A Monmouth University poll released Monday found Trump taking 41 percent support and opening up a 27-point lead over the next closest contender ahead of Tuesday night’s Republican presidential debate in Las Vegas.

“Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas) is a distant second place, taking 14 percent, followed by Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) at 10 percent and retired neurosurgeon Ben Carson at 9 percent.”

Adding it up, Trump’s got nearly three times the support of second place Ted Cruz.

Below Carson, Jeb Bush and John Kasich each have 3 percent…and the others 2 percent or less.

Easley notes that the poll was taken after Trump’s Muslim immigration ban proposal. The Donald’s favorability numbers also ticked upward considerably, as did Cruz’s and Rubio’s (Carson’s dropped some).

People have national security on their minds, which I’m sure will be reflected in the exchanges between the candidates in the CNN debate tonight.

With Trump’s big polling lead and Ted Cruz taking over Iowa, it could easily turn into Republican “Fight Night in Vegas” all over again.

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