Republicans prepare to debate tonight in Las Vegas – Washington Post

Republican front-runner Donald Trump on Tuesday evening will face his rivals for the first time since his controversial call to block Muslims from entering the United States, in the fifth debate among Republican presidential candidates.

The main debate, featuring Trump and eight other candidates, will begin at 8:30 p.m. Eastern time in Las Vegas. The evening’s “undercard” debate — featuring four low-polling candidates — will start at 6 p.m. Eastern.

Both will be broadcast live on CNN.

Although there will be 13 candidates onstage between the two debates, the GOP race seems largely to have narrowed down to four — or perhaps three — men. Between them, they have eight years of experience in federal office.

Trump remains the front-runner, despite a string of incendiary comments about Mexicans, illegal immigrants and recently Muslims. In fact, a new Washington Post-ABC News poll released Tuesday showed Trump’s lead was larger than ever. Trump stood at 38 percent among registered Republicans and GOP-leaning independents in that poll, six points higher than in October and November.

In a Las Vegas rally Monday night, Trump returned to the themes that have defined his campaign so far: gloom about the country, worries about immigrants and boasts about himself.

“The American Dream is dead,” Trump said near the end of his remarks at the rally. “But we’re going to make it bigger and better and stronger than ever before.”

Other major contenders include Sen. Marco Rubio (Fla.), the GOP establishment’s best hope, and Sen. Ted Cruz (Tex.), a despised figure in Washington who seems to be tapping into the same anti-establishment fervor as Trump.

The fourth at the top is retired neurosurgeon Ben Carson, but his star seems to be fading. Carson had been challenging Trump at the top of national polls earlier this fall. But his fortunes seem to have been hurt by new questions about his life story — Carson, for instance, had long implied that he had been accepted by the U.S. Military Academy in West Point, N.Y., when he had not. Carson also seemed to struggle with new topics: During a speech to Jewish Republicans, he repeatedly mispronounced the name of the Palestinian militant group Hamas. Carson said it like “hummus.”

The Post-ABC News poll showed that Carson’s support had been cut roughly in half over the past month. Cruz has aggressively courted the same bloc of evangelical voters that once formed Carson’s base.

Other candidates — even on the main stage — need a major boost from Tuesday’s debate, just to stay relevant.

Sen. Rand Paul (Ky.), the libertarian-ish son of repeat presidential candidate Ron Paul, was once crowned the most interesting man in Washington. But his numbers are so low that he barely made the main debate.

Retired tech executive Carly Fiorina, who was the breakout star of the first GOP debates, has faded since then, hurt by a scanty campaign organization. The shift of the campaign toward issues of national security seems to have hurt her, because she is not seen as an expert on the topic.

New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie has come up from rock bottom in recent weeks, rising in New Hampshire polls after strong town-hall performances. Christie, who was a federal prosecutor, is hoping that new concerns about terrorism will push this race — at last — to a “serious” phase.

That means a phase in which people want experience and Christie, not insults and Trump.

“This race has been entertaining — very entertaining,” Christie told a packed crowd at a town-hall meeting here last weekend. But, he declared, “showtime is over, everybody.”

“You don’t want somebody sitting in the [Oval Office] chair, spinning around going, ‘Gee, whiz, isn’t it great to be president?’ ” he added. “You want somebody who’s going to . . . understand from the first minute he sits in that chair that this is serious business.”

The other candidates on the main stage will be former Florida governor Jeb Bush and Ohio Gov. John Kasich. The four candidates in the undercard debate will be former Arkansas governor Mike Huckabee, former senator Rick Santorum (Pa.), former New York governor George Pataki and Sen. Lindsey O. Graham (S.C.).

Sean Sullivan, Phillip Rucker, Abby Phillip, Dan Balz and Scott Clement contributed to this report.

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