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Republicans eye new front-runner in Tuesday’s debate

Analysis: What happens in Vegas between Trump and Cruz will not stay in Vegas

According to the latest national polling, reports of Donald Trump’s demise are greatly exaggerated. In the latest Monmouth University survey of likely Republican voters [PDF], the real estate tycoon turned candidate has jumped to a 27-point lead over his closest competitor, Texas Sen. Ted Cruz. In fact, Trump’s 41 percent outpolls the next six candidates combined.

But presidential primaries are not decided at the national level. Instead, the United States awards delegates to the party conventions on a state-by-state basis, and in Iowa, home of the first-in-the-nation Feb. 1 caucuses, it is Cruz who has surged to the top of the pack.

Of the four most recent surveys of Iowa Republicans, two have Cruz solidly out in front of Trump, and the others have the two in a statistical tie. With Cruz’s reportedly superior ground game in Iowa (a state where campaign infrastructure is especially important), and a strong showing in the most recent NBC/Wall Street Journal national poll, some election watchers are openly talking about the Texas conservative as the new favorite to grab the GOP’s nomination.

Cruz will still be one lectern off the center at tonight’s Republican debate in Las Vegas, since debate sponsor CNN’s criteria for placement still has Trump in the lead. But many observers expect the other assembled candidates, Trump included, to treat Cruz as the new candidate to beat.

If this primary is shaping up as a two-man race to the nomination, with Trump as the outsider’s insurgent and Cruz as the insider’s outsider, then what is the actual choice facing Republican voters? And is that choice rooted more in ideology or style?

Trump’s call for a ban on Muslims entering the U.S. had grabbed headlines in the last two weeks, and has even provoked condemnation from a number of other Republican hopefuls — but Cruz was pointedly not among them.

Cruz, campaigning in South Carolina last week, after the Trump declaration, was asked if he supported an outright prohibition on Muslims coming into the country. “No, that is not my policy,” he said. But when pressed to criticize Trump, the champion of that plan, Cruz steadfastly refused.

Cruz does say he wants to focus on “radical Islamic terrorism,” and has advocated a ban on immigration from areas under threat from the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant and Al-Qaeda. He recently tweeted that he would “shut down” the “immigration system that is letting jihadists into our country.”

And for Cruz, the religious test embraced by Trump (along with other GOP contenders, most notably former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush), seems close at hand. Last month, Cruz said he would allow Christian refugees into the U.S., because, he said, "There is no meaningful risk of Christians committing acts of terror."

At and outside the borders

On broader immigration issues, Cruz also mirrors Trump’s nativism. Both men have called for an end to birthright citizenship — in which anyone born in the U.S. is automatically a citizen of the U.S. — and Cruz has said he would introduce a constitutional amendment to end this eligibility for the children of undocumented immigrants. Cruz has also, much like Trump, called for a more highly fortified border with Mexico, with more border patrol agents, aircraft surveillance and a bigger “wall.”

Cruz hasn’t directly called for the mass deportation of 11 million migrants — as Trump famously did — but he did advocate expanding the powers of local law enforcement to actively administer federal laws against illegal immigration.

Beyond U.S. borders, Cruz has made a point of differentiating his foreign policy from the likes of Trump and Florida Senator Marco Rubio, who has also been moving up in the polls.

Trump has made a regular applause line out of his call to “bomb the [expletive] out of ISIS.” And Cruz has harshly criticized Rubio for siding with President Obama and Hillary Clinton, his onetime secretary of state, on the ouster of former Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi.

Cruz says he’d be less interventionist, implying he’d stay out of the Syrian civil war because the U.S. has “no dog in the fight.” He questions the existence of so-called moderate rebels and says that the conflict represents no direct threat to national security.

Claiming the right flank

Cruz most clearly distinguishes himself from Trump on domestic and social issues, where he repeatedly positions himself to the right of most of the Republican field.

Cruz has gone as far as any GOP candidate on the issue of abortion. He’s endorsed numerous restrictions on access, advocated defunding Planned Parenthood during this year’s controversy over deceptively edited videos, and recently called for Congress to extend the Constitution’s equal protection clause (in the 14th Amendment) to fetuses — the so-called “personhood” strategy to negate the Supreme Court’s decision in Roe v. Wade, which made abortion legal across the U.S.

Appearing with a conservative talk show host on Catholic network EWTN, Cruz said he agreed with the pope in protecting every life from the moment of conception. When asked if he thought that was possible with congressional action and without any ruling by the high court, Cruz said, “Absolutely yes, under the 14th Amendment.”

On same-sex unions, Cruz says that only the four states whose laws have come before the Supreme Court need abide by the justices’ decision to strike anti-gay-marriage laws. Every other state, says Cruz, should ignore the ruling.

Cruz seems more respectful of U.S. jurisprudence when it comes to the Affordable Care Act. Though Cruz has pledged to work to repeal the law should he become president, he made a big point of enrolling in the plan earlier this year.

"I believe we should follow the text of every law, even laws I disagree with," Cruz told CNN.

Cruz had to opt for the congressional health exchange when he lost his coverage under his wife Heidi’s plan. Mrs. Cruz had to give up her company-provided health insurance when she took a leave of absence from her job as managing director in the Houston office of Goldman Sachs, in order to focus on her husband’s campaign.

Trump has been hard to pin down on the Affordable Care Act, saying he’d “repeal and replace” it with “something terrific.” But when pressed in September on CBS’ 60 Minutes, what Trump said he’d replace it with would probably give many conservatives chills.

“I am going to take care of everybody. I don’t care if it costs me votes or not,” he told host Scott Pelley. “Everybody’s going to be taken care of much better than they’re taken care of now.”

“Who pays for it?” asked Pelley.

“The government’s gonna pay for it,” said Trump.

The two men diverge on Social Security, too. Trump noticeably stunned a New Hampshire audience in April when he said that it was “unfair” to cut Social Security benefits or raise the retirement age. Trump has also said his rich friends should not take retirement payouts.

Cruz has said he will not change the plan for retirees already drawing benefits, but he wants major changes for everyone else. Cruz does want to increase the retirement age, has called for capping cost-of-living increases to payments and, most notably, has advocated shifting younger workers into privatized retirement accounts.

Those changes, taken in tandem with his plan for a 10 percent flat income tax and a national sales tax — applied both to consumers and to corporations, in lieu of a corporate income tax — makes Cruz’s economic agenda dangerous to those living on limited or fixed incomes, according to advocates for retirees and the poor. And Cruz’s desire to return the U.S. to the economically restrictive gold standard leaves even the conservative Wall Street Journal a little dumbfounded.

Hot-button issues

These policy details may get little notice Tuesday night compared with what are expected to be the hot-button topics — Trump’s call to stop Muslims at the border, a resurgent fear of attacks, military intervention in the Middle East and the temperaments of the current top contenders. And it’s not clear whether any voters watching the debate will change their allegiances based on fine policy points.

More likely, for GOP die-hards in the national audience, it will come down to how Trump balances his well-rehearsed rhetoric on terrorism — which has increased his lead in several polls — with his newer attacks on Cruz. (Trump called the Texan a “maniac” over the weekend, causing Cruz to tweet a link to a musical moment from the movie “Flashdance.”)

But for caucus goers in Iowa, Cruz may have already won. With a superior political operation and closer ties to the important evangelical community, Cruz is the first Republican candidate in months to delineate a path to the nomination that circumvents Trump.

Of course, Iowa is not the entire race — just ask Mike Huckabee and Rick Santorum — but if the still-crowded GOP field is ever to be winnowed, it is a crucial lap. Tuesday’s battle in Las Vegas could go a long way to determining who has the inside track.

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