CNN GOP Debate Preview (Part 1)

We’ve arrived at the fifth Republican debate (Las Vegas, CNN, Tuesday @8:30 EST). Tomorrow I’ll do a preview examining each of the candidacies, but because it’s been over a month since the last debate, I’d like to first take stock of what’s happened since then.

The last debate took place on November 10. We’ve since had the Paris attacks and San Bernadino. We’ve had Donald Trump completely mangle the Overton window. We’ve had American anti-Muslim animosity reach levels not seen since at least 9/11, or maybe ever. As a result, we can expect a lot of policy questions on international affairs, foreign policy, and terrorism.

Many things have changed politically since the last debate, too, although some things have stayed the same. A month ago, Trump was in the lead, as he is today. With him in the top tier was Ben Carson, Marco Rubio, and Ted Cruz, and those four still have the highest national polling figures. At the bottom of the polls were Pataki, Gilmore, Graham, Santorum, and Huckabee, none of whom made the last debate and none of whom made this one, either.

As for what’s changed politically, Trump’s main challenger has been swapped out. Carson was nipping at his heals but the good doctor has since lost nearly double digit support. His loss has been Cruz’s gain, who is now second in the national polls and first in Iowa. Meanwhile, in another change, Bobby Jindal became the third to withdraw his candidacy, bringing the field down to a tidy 14 candidates.

Recent polling trends and CNN’s debate qualification criteria will give us a different field this time around. To qualify for the main debate, candidates needed to do one of the three following thresholds in the window of October 29 through December 13: average 3.5 percent in national polling; average 4 percent in Iowa; or average 4 percent in New Hampshire.

As a result, we have nine debaters on the main stage tomorrow. Rand Paul was nearly relegated to the matinee debate, and I don’t think a withdrawal would have been that far behind. However, he qualified, so he’ll avoid debating the undercard quartet of Mike Huckabee, Rick Santorum, Lindsey Graham, and George Pataki.

Although stuck at the kiddie table a month ago, Chris Christie will be back in the main field tomorrow. In fact, aside from Cruz, he’s been the field’s biggest mover (and the biggest everything, amiright??). He rode that matinee performance and some New Hampshire traction to move up to a highwater mark of sixth in national polling average, and he just hit second place for the first time in a New Hampshire poll, where he’s now averaging third behind Trump and Rubio. For anyone paying attention to this blog over the last few months, Cruz and Christie‘s pushes should not come as a surprise. And if you haven’t been paying attention to it, now’s a good time to start.

For a closer look at each candidate, check back tomorrow.

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