The morning after last month’s GOP debate, it seemed as though a chaotic and crazy nominating contest was finally starting to come into focus. Ben Carson’s campaign appeared to be wounded, and Donald Trump’s waning. Meanwhile, Marco Rubio and Ted Cruz had emerged as the most plausible candidates to fill the establishment and anti-establishment lanes that history suggests are the best paths out of Iowa and New Hampshire. But as Republicans gather in Las Vegas on Tuesday for their latest debate, things look a good deal hazier than when they left Milwaukee—and not only because of the Trump-sized patch of fog that still hangs over the field.
Here are five things to watch for during Tuesday night’s CNN debate, which kicks off at 8:30 p.m. Eastern time.
The (Somewhat) Forgotten Man: Marco Rubio
The debate stage has proved friendly territory this year for the first-term senator. Rubio turned in strong, if understated, performances in the first few debates before using the past two to clobber Jeb Bush and emerge as the establishment’s anointed one. The problem, though, is that while Rubio’s locking up endorsements and big-dollar donors, being the top dog of the establishment is no great shakes. He’s been largely overshadowed on the stump by Trump, who’s returned to classic Trump form, and Cruz, who has done a much better job than Rubio of translating his newfound attention into tangible gains, both in the polls and on the ground in the early states. Rubio, then, faces a choice on Tuesday: Stay the course and hope to stay out of the fray, or look to score some points at Trump’s, or more likely, Cruz’s expense—and risk drawing conservative fire. Whichever he decides will tell us a lot about how confident he is that his slow-and-steady game plan will eventually win over early state voters who appear to like him significantly less than Beltway observers do.
Ted Cruz vs. Donald Trump
The unofficial alliance between Cruz and Trump appears to be over now that the former is posing a serious challenge to the latter in his beloved polls. Trump spent much of the weekend lobbing insults at his Texas rival and arguing he doesn’t have the temperament needed to be president—pot, meet kettle—previewing attacks he could use during the debate. But I actually don’t expect the two men to trade serious blows on the Las Vegas stage. Time and time again this year, political watchers (myself very much included) have predicted that Trump would use the prime-time spotlight to tangle with his latest challenger du jour, only to watch Trump largely play it safe on the debate stage. When Trump does end up locked in battle, it tends to be when someone else forces the issue. Cruz doesn’t have much to gain by doing so.
WWCCD? (What Will Chris Christie Do?)
The Republican Party’s Trump nightmare (Trumpmare?) is only getting worse. But while wealthy GOP donors plot to take Trump down and party power brokers plan for a contested convention as a last-ditch effort to save the day if they don’t, the establishment candidates have been pretty helpless. Given Trump’s widely panned no-Muslims-allowed plan, Jeb Bush and co. could finally try to play the grown-ups in the room on Tuesday. Their problem, though, is that none has the moral high ground from which to launch the attack and, even if they did, they’d need to be willing to pay a political price with their party’s base to land it. Jeb has already made it painfully clear that the debate stage is not where he shines, and John Kasich has so far come off more annoying than effective while lashing out at his rivals. That leaves Chris Christie—who is finally showing signs of life in New Hampshire—as the establishment man best suited to try to shake things up.
Rand Paul’s Last Hurrah
Paul will be standing on the main stage in Las Vegas only because of the grace of CNN, which had to fudge its polling math to justify sending him an invite. Paul entered the nominating cycle as “the most interesting man in politics” but has failed to live up to that billing time and time again this year. He’s become an afterthought in national polls and isn’t even in the top five in Iowa, a state that proved to be friendly terrain to Ron Paul, his libertarian father. Given Rand will need to defend his Senate seat next fall, it’s only a matter of time before he packs up his presidential campaign and gets back to work on his re-election bid.
CNN, Take 2
The previous CNN-hosted Republican debate was a bit of debacle, but then so have been most of the GOP events. Ted Cruz and co. have made it clear that if the moderators ask questions they’d rather not answer, they won’t hesitate to turn a debate ostensibly about policy into one about what they say is a liberal bias. That creates an unenviable task for CNN’s Wolf Blitzer, who will have to decide which is more important to him: making news, or avoiding becoming it.