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Trump at center stage, but Cruz in spotlight at GOP debate

Julie Pace Associated Press

WASHINGTON – Donald Trump will be standing at center stage, but Ted Cruz will be in the spotlight at Tuesday night’s Republican presidential debate.

The Texas senator is challenging Trump’s lead in the kickoff Iowa caucuses, and he has the money, campaign infrastructure and conservative appeal to compete deep into the GOP primary season. Those assets now make him a target for his rivals, most notably Trump and Florida Sen. Marco Rubio.

Trump and Cruz have been getting along for months, and that has protected the senator from the harsh criticism the businessman has flung against other opponents. But signs of a split have emerged in recent days, with Cruz appearing to question Trump’s judgment at a private fundraiser and Trump calling Cruz “a little bit of a maniac.”

Another intriguing dynamic in Tuesday’s prime-time debate in Las Vegas involves Cruz and Rubio. Both are first-term senators and Cuban Americans who see themselves as alternatives to Trump, who has baffled Republican leaders with his political durability.

Cruz and Rubio have been sparring from afar for weeks, particularly over national security, which is now a top campaign issue following the attacks in Paris and San Bernardino, California. Rubio has tried to brand Cruz as an isolationist and has criticized his support for ending the bulk collection of Americans’ phone records.

Tuesday’s debate will be the first for Republicans in more than a month, and also the first since the attacks in Paris and California. The four previous GOP debates had record viewership.

With just six weeks until voting begins, the broad contours of the race remain consistent. Trump still sits atop the GOP field, displaying a talent for connecting with voters frustrated with Washington and on edge about the threat of terrorism.

More experienced politicians are still struggling to break through in the crowded field. Some party leaders fear that unless the party’s establishment wing quickly rallies around one candidate, the nomination could go to Trump or Cruz – candidates they see as all but unelectable in a contest with Democratic front-runner Hillary Clinton.

Still, there have been some signs of movement in early-voting states since Republicans last took the debate stage.

Cruz’s rise in Iowa has been accompanied by a precipitous decline for Ben Carson, the retired neurosurgeon who has struggled with inexperience on national security matters. New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie is enjoying increasing support in New Hampshire.

Also on the main stage Tuesday night will be Florida Gov. Jeb Bush, former business executive Carly Fiorina, Ohio Gov. John Kasich and Kentucky Sen. Rand Paul. Four lower-polling candidates will appear at an earlier event: former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee, former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum, former New York Gov. George Pataki and South Carolina Sen. Lindsey Graham.

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