LAS VEGAS — The Republicans who want to be commander in chief are set to debate Tuesday for the first time since deadly terrorist attacks rocked Europe and the United States, leaving many Americans anxious about their personal security.
That concern, pronounced among Republican primary voters, provides both opportunity and risk for the GOP presidential candidates. Those who project a sense of command and competence on foreign policy and national security issues could have a break out moment and shake up the 2016 campaign. Those who fail the commander in chief test, precisely as Republicans are looking for a strong leader to take on the terrorist threat, could see their campaigns irreparably damaged.
“Terrorism and foreign policy will be a big part of this,” said Republican pollster David Winston, who is not aligned with any candidate. “There has been some interesting movement among candidates since the last debate, among the top four or five in particular. This reflects an electorate that is thinking through options, and they are about to get a significant discussion that can introduce new constructs to this primary.”
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Since the Republicans last met on the debate stage in Milwaukee to discuss pocketbook issues, jihadist radicals either directed or inspired by the Islamic State struck Paris, leaving 140 dead, and San Bernardino, Calif., leaving 14 dead and 21 wounded. The latter attack was the worst terrorist strike on the homeland since Sept.11, 2001, and new public opinion polls show that voters are now more concerned about national security than the economy, which is a marked shift.
The Tuesday evening CNN debates, cablecast from The Venetian hotel and casino along the Las Vegas strip, are expected to hone in on domestic and national security, how the candidates would handle the issues as president — how their policies would differ from President Obama, and each other. It could be a pivotal moment in a campaign that is just seven weeks away from first votes. Here’s what to watch for:
The polling averages put Donald Trump, Ted Cruz, Marco Rubio and Ben Carson alone in the top tier. But none can afford to coast. They no longer have the luxury of hovering in a comfortable holding pattern; it’s time to begin closing deal and coalescing voters. Whether any of them accomplish could rest on how they perform in the white-hot prime time spotlight. This debate comes as the leading candidates have been sparring as aggressively as ever over substantive issues and leadership style.
Trump, the New York businessman and reality television star, and Cruz, the Texas senator, have been battling each other; Cruz and Rubio, the Florida senator, have been battling each other; Trump and Rubio have battled intermittently.
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