LAS VEGAS — Greetings once again from the Venetian Las Vegas, where nine Republican presidential hopefuls will shortly begin their attempt to sway voters in the CNN/Salem Media Group debate, the final event in 2015. Wolf Blizter will moderate, while Salem Radio Network host Hugh Hewitt will once again join Dana Bash on the panel. The Venetian Las Vegas and the Palazzo Las Vegas is a mega-resort/casino complex owned by Sheldon Adelson, the man who became 2012’s largest Republican donor, mainly using super-PACs to boost Mitt Romney. The pre-debate buzz here involves Adelson’s meeting with Donald Trump, who says he’s not interested in Adelson’s cash, as Robert Costa reports for the Washington Post:
“Sheldon knows that I’m in town because of the debate and he’s been a friend of mine for a long time,” Trump said. “He called to see whether or not we could meet and we are going to meet.”
Trump said the huddle will occur Tuesday afternoon at The Venetian, a luxury Italian-themed hotel and casino on the Las Vegas strip that is owned by Adelson and which will be the site of the CNN debate. …
“What I told Sheldon through his people is that I’d love their support. It’s unnecessary, but I’d like his support. I don’t want his money,” Trump said.
Trump also said it is would not surprise him if Adelson may be inclined to back a more traditional Republican contender. The casino mogul has been growing increasingly friendly with several other 2016 candidates, including Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.).
“That’s okay,” Trump said. “Look, I don’t expect his support even though I know him and like him and he likes me. I don’t expect his support because people like putting up money to candidates. They’re like gamblers. They’re like horse-betters.”
Well, not exactly. Adelson is a fiscal conservative with a keen interest in Israel, especially given the policies of the last seven years. He tends to back pragmatic candidates more than ideologues or populists, which makes the meeting with Trump a little interesting. Trump may not want his money (although that’s debatable), but what he really wants is to preclude other candidates from getting Adelson’s cash. It’s not likely to work, because Adelson’s probably well aware that Trump is too much of a loose cannon, and his money would be better spent on another candidate. However, Adelson apparently attended Trump’s rally last night, so anything’s possible.
Trump may have a friendly chat with Adelson in the afternoon, but it may get bumpier in the evening. In my column for The Week, I predict that the change in Iowa polling may have candidates taking direct aim at Trump in tonight’s debate — although maybe not Ted Cruz:
Can Cruz continue to take it easy on Trump? The Iowa caucuses are less than two months out, and New Hampshire’s first-in-the-nation primary follows shortly afterward. The Republican field has largely refrained from frontal attacks on Trump even in the debates, but the end of the truce between Trump and Cruz and the ticking clock should put an end to that strategy, which hasn’t worked for anyone except Cruz.
Trump’s sudden vulnerability should be enough for the other candidates to really go after Trump. Rather than directly attack his more controversial statements, they may just take on Trump’s own temperament. Policy fights don’t hurt Trump, at least thus far, as Trump has succeeded in maintaining his support while shifting positions on immigration, abortion, taxes, and the war on ISIS, even within the past year. Trump will have to undermine himself, but other candidates will have to provoke him to do so; standing on the sidelines and fighting with each other has mostly allowed Trump to skate in the debates without taking any damage at all.
Cruz might be the only candidate who runs a risk of going on offense against Trump, but after Trump’s comments on Sunday, there may be more risk in remaining silent. After all, Cruz is now the Iowa frontrunner, and Rubio will take aim at him, perhaps even ahead of Trump. If Cruz lets Trump define him as obsequious and insincere, it could leave openings for attacks from Rubio and others on stage. Cruz has built his reputation as a fearless rebel fighting the establishment; keeping up one end of a mutual admiration society could endanger his own brand.
For everyone else but Cruz, though, time is running out. They can chip at each other, but ignoring Trump has only marginalized themselves. With the Iowa caucuses and New Hampshire primary only two months out, tonight may be the last, best chance to change the momentum in the Republican race.
Salem Radio Network will begin its official debate coverage at 5 pm ET, rolling through until 90 minutes after the main event. You can catch the audio stream at HughHewitt.com, where Guy Benson, Katie Pavlich, and I will be contributing to the commentary. In addition, as much as possible, I will be adding updates to this post as the debate unfolds.
Update: Live blog begins (all times PT)…
5:50 – This debate began a little earlier than expected. Rand Paul started off by going directly after Donald Trump and Marco Rubio. John Kasich began by going after fighting and arguing … debating, actually.
5:52 – Kasich ended with a call for unity. Christie and Fiorina both gave credit for anger, but argued that leadership will answer the frustrations of Americans. Fiorina said she had been “called every B-word in the book” as a leader in the private sector.
5:55 – While the other candidates focused on frustrations, Marco Rubio focused on vision and purpose. Ted Cruz targeted Barack Obama’s leadership and policies, saying “We will keep America safe.” Ben Carson used his opening to offer a moment of silence for the victims of the San Bernardino terror victims, and then stressed his familiarity with life-and-death decisions. “Right now America is the patient,” Carson declared, saying the patient is “in critical condition.”
6:00 – Trump gave himself credit for opening up the debate. The first question goes to Trump, and it’s the Muslim ban policy, as well as Trump’s other security policies. Trump doesn’t back down, but also doesn’t mention the Muslim ban specifically. “I will build a wall, and it will be a great wall.”
6:02 – Bush goes directly after Trump, calling him “a chaos candidate, and he would be a chaos president.” Trump says Jeb’s losing the campaign, and doesn’t compare to what Trump has accomplished. Bush rebutted on policy, saying we have to engage with the Muslim world to defeat ISIS.
6:05 – Rubio blames Obama for the current anger and frustration, saying “he has not kept this country safe.” He emphasizes why people sympathize with Trump’s proposal, but says it won’t work. Cruz offers a similar approach, sympathizing with the idea while opposing it.
6:07 – Hugh Hewitt presses Cruz to discuss his differences with Trump on the Muslim ban, and Cruz does a pretty good job of staying positive while doing it. Hugh then turns to Fiorina, asking (about Trump’s proposal) “Is this what you want the party to stand for?” Fiorina, perhaps wisely, shifts to a personal anecdote and a call to the private sector to get involved in the fight against ISIS.
6:11 – Kasich calls for US boots on the ground against ISIS, the first one in this panel to do so. He says it has to be done in a Gulf War-like coalition. Perhaps they’ll go to Rand Paul next.
6:12 – Instead, Cruz gets pressed by Dana Bash to defend the NSA reform legislation USA Freedom Act. He says it has improved the focus on bad guys, and given investigators more tools. Rubio disagrees, and Cruz accuses Rubio of “Alinsky-style attacks.” Rubio then rebuts Cruz, saying there is nothing allowed in the USA Freedom Act that wasn’t allowed before — and gets a big cheer from the audience. Good moments for both men.
6:18 – Rand Paul plays the Chuck Schumer card. I have to admit that I wouldn’t have guessed that Paul would be the first to play that tonight.
6:20 – Christie tees off on the three Senators debating the minutiae of these bills, and says none of them had to “make a tough executive decision in their lives.” Gets a huge cheer. Hard not to see that as a home run for Christie.
Carson then complains about not getting a question — and he’s right.
6:23 – Blitzer asks Bush whether his brother’s inclusive approach to Muslim still works, and he says yes. Jeb also goes after the Senators for their lack of executive action, but to much less effect than Christie.
6:25 – Fiorina: “For heaven’s sake, every parent in America checks social media, and so does every employer!” Nice shot from Fiorina on the lack of private-sector input on Healthcare.gov, too.
6:26 – Trump gets a challenge on his comment about “closing up parts of the Internet,” which really was a BS controversy. Oddly, Trump isn’t calling out the media for mischaracterizing his argument, which was really a call to conduct cyberwarfare against ISIS. Trump then fell into the trap by endorsing the less-accurate characterization. Interestingly, Kasich — who tore after Trump in earlier debates — let him off the hook here by shifting to encryption.
6:32 – Cruz gets pressed on his “carpet-bomb ISIS” statements. He’s actually not correct to say that we “carpet-bombed” Iraq in 1991 or 2003; we were much more precise than that. He’s using the wrong term in pursuit of the right policy, and he should fix that.
6:34 – Rubio attacks Cruz on defense budgeting, saying “You can’t carpet-bomb ISIS if you don’t have planes.” We had a glitch in the filing center that killed our feed during Cruz’s response, but Rubio’s last rebuttal was pretty effective. Clearly, it’s on between Rubio and Cruz, and both men are landing punches.
6:38 – Jeb goes after Trump again as unserious. Trump jabs back softly, and Jeb punches back harder. Trump then says that we’re getting weaker in defense of a proposal to kill the families of terrorists. Jeb responds, “You’re not going to be able to insult your way to the presidency.” Did Jeb decide to use up his remaining resources by going after Trump? So far, he’s the only one who’s really engaging Trump.
6:41 – Hugh asks Carson whether he could wage war and cause the deaths of hundreds and thousands of innocent children — and gets booed for pressing it. Carson offers a very good answer, made even more effective by his measured tone. Hugh did Carson a favor.
6:44 – Trump finally gets back to explaining what he meant on the Internet question, but he’s still not doing a very good job of it. Paul scored better on the question of deliberately targeting innocent family members for death, and frankly, he’s got a good argument on regime change too.
6:49 – Fiorina tries the executive argument against “first-term Senators” too, but it falls flat from someone who lost her only run for political office … the Senate. Then she offers a strange gender-card argument. Not a good moment from Fiorina.
6:50 – Christie makes the argument better, although he says he agrees with Rubio that the real problem is that our allies have lost trust in the US after Obama cut a deal with the Iranians.
6:52 – Commercial break. So far I’d say that Rubio, Cruz, and Christie are doing themselves the most good, and Carson and Bush have had good moments.
6:57 – Great answer from Cruz on Wilsonian foreign policies.
6:58 – Good answer from Rubio, too, and once again we have Rubio vs Cruz. It’s interesting how that keeps coming up, eh?
6:59 – Another feed problem in the filing center. When we come back, Kasich’s calling for Assad to go.
7:01 – Fiorina hits Hillary Clinton on foreign policy pretty effectively, and reminds us that Hillary has gotten off easy in this debate so far.
7:03 – CT Rex notices this:
— Inconspicuous Rex (@CrankyTRex) December 16, 2015
I’m surprised more of the candidates aren’t doing that.
7:04 – Bush goes after Hillary too. He’s getting pre-empted fairly regularly, but he’s not getting a lot of talk time in this debate, either.
7:06 – Hugh asks Trump how we can be winning if Iran is winning. Trump says we can’t fight Assad and ISIS at the same time, which isn’t an unreasonable position. Christie follows up by saying that the biggest problem is that Obama has empowered Iran through the nuclear deal that lifted the sanctions.
7:09 – Kasich endorses Joe Biden’s Iraq policy of breaking them up into three states.
7:12 – Fiorina: “It’s not these people up here — it’s Hillary Clinton” who’s to blame for America’s foreign-policy failures.
7:13 – Christie on the no-fly zone: Yes, I’d shoot down Russian pilots who violate it, and Obama is a “feckless weakling.” Paul: “If you want World War III, you have your candidate.”
7:15 – Paul tosses out a Bridgegate reference, which Christie just ignores.
7:17 – Trump offers an off-the-rails response about the first Fox News debate and people talking badly about him.
7:23 – Rubio says he learned a lesson from the 2013 that immigration enforcement has to come first. Outlines a step-by-step approach to immigration. Cruz comes back with a tough response, especially on refugee screening. Finishes with a great line – “We will build a wall that works, and I’ll get Donald Trump to pay for it.”
7:26 – Aaaaaaand we’re back to Cruz vs Rubio. Funny how often Rubio answers get Cruz follow-ups, and vice-versa.
7:29 – Aaaaaaand then the toss to Bush on tone. Sigh.
7:35 – Very good answer from Christie on refugees. Nice personal touch with the James Comey, too.
7:37 – Commercial break. Cruz and Rubio are going hammer and tongs at each other, but Christie is doing a very effective job with less time, and with less opposition. Fiorina had a couple of good moments. Trump’s not doing much, but don’t expect the odd whine about Fox News to hurt him with his polling. Adam Baldwin calls Cruz the winner so far, and while I may not agree with him, it’s definitely a reasonable take.
7:41 – A Kim Jong-un question to Fiorina. Good topic; Fiorina focuses on China and leverage.
7:46 – Christie wants to punish China on cyberwarfare. Bush manages to fumble a joke about the press in response.
7:49 – Rubio gives a good, comprehensive answer on modernizing the nuclear triad, offering a cogent explanation for those who may not know what that means.
7:50 – Trump retreats from his “maniac” comment about Cruz. When challenged why Cruz criticizes Trump in private but not in public, Cruz goes into a lengthy personal anecdote and then starts criticizing Obama and Hillary. Cruz then finishes by saying that everyone on stage has “infinitely better” judgment than the Democrats, but still won’t answer the specific question.
7:53 – Trump then says he’s “totally committed” to the Republican Party and won’t run as an independent.
7:59 – Closing statements. Finally.
8:02 – Bush stumbles through his closing statement, saying little other than his record is strong.
8:05 – Fiorina, Rubio, Carson, and Cruz all had good closing statements. I’d say that Christie, Rubio, and Cruz did themselves the most good. Not clear that anyone did themselves significant harm, but people like Bush, Paul, and Fiorina who needed breakout performances came up short. Watch New Hampshire to see whether this has any impact on the top tier; perhaps it might boost Christie there.