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GOP Candidates Meet In Las Vegas For First Debate Since Terror Attacks


Three days after the last Republican presidential debate, the terrorist attacks in Paris happened - a few weeks after that, the mass shooting in San Bernardino. Well, tonight, Republican candidates are back on stage, this time in Las Vegas, and their stances on national security will likely be under scrutiny. NPR political reporter Sarah McCammon is with us for a preview. And Sarah, since that last debate and the attacks, pundits were speculating that voters are going to want a more experienced politician, maybe someone with some kind of security background. What are the polls actually showing you?

SARAH MCCAMMON, BYLINE: Yeah. That doesn't seem to have happened. I mean, Donald Trump, whose experience is not as a politician and certainly is not an establishment candidate, only seems to have gotten stronger as his rhetoric has gotten more intense. He's been drawing big crowds and still at the top of national polls. And of course, he's called for banning all Muslims from entering the U.S., gotten some pushback from his own party, but it doesn't seem to be hurting him with the voters who support him.

CORNISH: Meanwhile, Ted Cruz is a candidate who has been gaining ground, particularly in Iowa. How will that play out on stage tonight, right? Cruz will actually be standing next to Trump.

MCCAMMON: Right. At center stage will be Trump, Cruz next to him. And you know, Cruz has been angling for Trump supporters in the expectation, he thinks, that the Trump, eventually, will see a slide. But he's been careful, Audie, about how he has attacked Trump. That rhetoric about Muslims, he said, wouldn't be his policy to ban Muslims, but Cruz didn't say much else. So something to watch tonight is just how forcefully Cruz addresses that issue if it comes up and also how those two interact on stage.

So while Cruz has avoided attacking Trump publicly, Trump has been criticizing him on the campaign trail. He called Cruz a maniac recently, said he doesn't have the temperament to be president. Now, when I talked to the Trump camping today, they told me the media wants the battle to be between Trump and Cruz, and they're still really stressing Trump's strong standing in national polls.

CORNISH: Another person who's tangled with Trump would be Ben Carson, right? He had some momentum going into the last debate, but he has been struggling lately, particularly with these issues that might come up tonight - right? - like terrorism or foreign policy.

MCCAMMON: Right. So there's a lot at stake for him. He needs to show that he has a strong command of these issues at a time when they are clearly voters' top concern. You know, his own foreign policy advisers have expressed concern about his grasp of this material. His public speeches on foreign policy haven't given a lot of confidence to voters. And so just today, hours before this debate, Carson's campaign put out a statement calling for a declaration of war against ISIS and outlining his strategy for fighting terrorism. But you know, his opponents have been way ahead of him on this issue.

CORNISH: Now, talk a little bit more about some of the other folks on stage. I don't know if there's anybody else who's sort of experienced some shifts - right? - and could use a bump from a standout debate performance.

MCCAMMON: Right. Well, certainly Marco Rubio. He's struggled to get himself into the conversation the last couple weeks, but you know, tonight is a big opportunity for him to do that. One way he's likely to do that is to continue going after Cruz on national security. He's criticized Cruz before for opposing the NSA's phone record collection program which just expired.

And at the same time, I think you see Rubio trying to set himself apart with his tone. His campaign says he's not going into the debate planning to attack other candidates. One of my colleagues, Sam Sanders, was on the trail with Rubio yesterday, and Rubio was mostly praising his fellow Republicans, trying to remind them that, you know, his fellow Republicans are not the enemy, but it's Hillary Clinton and the Democrats going into this debate. Of course, Jeb Bush has been struggling too. He hasn't really had a standout debate performance, so he, as well, needs to do well tonight.

CORNISH: That's NPR's Sarah McCammon with a preview of tonight's Republican presidential debate in Las Vegas. Sarah and the rest of our political team will actually be discussing the debate all night on Twitter, and we want to hear from you. The hashtag will be #NPRdebate. Sarah, thanks so much.

MCCAMMON: Thanks, Audie. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Sarah McCammon worked for Iowa Public Radio as Morning Edition Host from January 2010 until December 2013.
Sarah McCammon
Sarah McCammon is a National Correspondent covering the Mid-Atlantic and Southeast for NPR. Her work focuses on political, social and cultural divides in America, including abortion and reproductive rights, and the intersections of politics and religion. She's also a frequent guest host for NPR news magazines, podcasts and special coverage.