What You Need to Know About Tuesday's Republican Presidential Debate

After a five-week hiatus, the GOP candidates resume their amateur cage fights at the CNN debate in Las Vegas.

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Dec 15 2015, 10:30pm

Photo by Peter Stevens via Flickr

After a five-week hiatus, the Republican presidential candidates will be back on stage Tuesday night for the party's fifth presidential primary debate, resuming their amateur wrestling spectacle live from Sheldon Adelson's casino on the Las Vegas strip.

If you're like most people, you were starting to get a little tired of these gladiator fights by the end of the Fox Business snoozefest that was the fourth Republican debate. But that was before the Paris attacks, before the shootings in San Bernardino and Colorado Springs, before Trump turned on Muslim immigrants and led America's barely-hidden white supremacists out of the political shadows and into the mainstream GOP.

Needless to say, Tuesday's debate promises to be quite a show, highlighting the darker twists that the Republican primary race has taken since we last saw these candidates. Polls released this week revealed that Trump's anti-Muslim invectives, despite being denounced by most of the world, have only served to shore up his support among Republican voters, and embolden his fans to make their own xenophobic—and just straight-up racist—views known.

With this fever swamp as a backdrop, organizers are predicting a brawl on stage in Las Vegas Tuesday. Here's what you need to need to know to get up to speed.

When and where will the debate take place?
The debate starts at 8:30 PM EST Tuesday night at The Venetian, the Las Vegas palazzo-themed hotel and casino owned by billionaire neocon Sheldon Adelson, an archetypal dark money megadonor who has been dangling a $500 check in front of the GOP's 2016 candidates and making them dance. Several of the candidates have reportedly gone to kiss Adelson's ring this week, and they'll be looking to score points while he looks on from the audience tonight.

Who's hosting?
CNN is putting on the circus tonight, with the always-shameless Wolf Blitzer as ringmaster. You might remember that the last time the network hosted one of these things, the debate ended with the candidates keeled over their podiums, sweaty and pale after standing under blazing stage lights in front of an airplane for more than three hours. Tuesday night's debate will be shorter, and the set looks much more subdued.

That doesn't mean CNN plans to tone down the drama. According to Politico, the network wants "slugfest," and is planning to hook viewers by pitting the candidates against each other until they start taking each other down, Lord of the Flies-style. Of course, it's also possible that the inmates will once again take over the asylum, and cannibalize the CNN moderators instead.

What is the debate about?
Technically, there is no official topic for tonight's debate. But both CNN and Blitzer have teased that the focus will be primarily on terrorism and national security—an obsession among Republicans—and most Americans for that matter—since the attacks in Paris last month. The debate also comes on the same day that a bomb threat shut down the entire Los Angeles School District, the nation's second largest school system, before it was discovered to be a hoax. "We're going to focus on the #1 issue facing the American people right now, and all the polls suggest that it is the fear of terrorism, ISIS," Blitzer said in a pre-debate interview this week.

Of course, that means that the focus tonight will be Muslims and what the respective candidates will or won't do to keep them from entering—or perhaps staying in—the United States. It's the first GOP debate since Trump first called for an end to all Muslim immigration until the government "can figure out what's going on," and expect ol' Blitz to make each of The Donald's opponents stake out where they stand on the idea. He'll also ask the candidates to clarify their positions on ISIS, Syria, and whether terrorists should be allowed to buy AR-15s in suburban gun stores.

Who's the candidate to watch?
Ted Cruz. The Texas Senator has been gaining lots of ground in recent polls, and has even pulled ahead of Trump in Iowa, a critical early voting state (although Trump maintains a substantial lead nationally). The momentum has been enough for the GOP Establishment to pin its hopes on Cruz as the guy who can unify Republicans and lead them out of the nativist rabbit hole that Trump has pulled them into this election cycle.

Of course, Trump is already onto this plan, and has acted with a predictable measure of lunacy, threatening to run as an independent, and then honing in on Cruz. Having dispatched of "Low Energy" Jeb! and Crazy Ben Carson, the reality-television host has turned his taunts to Cruz, casually referring to his opponent as "a little bit of a maniac," and pointing out that the Texas Senator used to support some types of immigration reform.

So far, Cruz's campaign has laughed off the jabs, tweeting various movie clips to show that the Senator is in on the joke. But while Cruz, a former college debate champ, is undoubtedly the most gifted extemporaneous speaker running in the GOP race, he's not known for his sense of humor—and it remains to be seen how he'll hold up against Trump's laser-like insults.

Besides Trump and Cruz, the other guys to watch are Carson and Florida Senator Marco Rubio, both of whom are trying to cut into Cruz's support among the nicer sect of right-wing voters. Neither of them has shown a particular oratory prowess in past debates, but the dominance of Trump—and the spectre of a Ted Cruz unity campaign—might be enough to make either, or both, of them, say something crazy.

What about the other guys?
It's true, there will be four other guys—and one woman—on the debate stage Tuesday. Jeb! will be there, and so will Carly Fiorina, Chris Christie, Rand Paul, and Ohio Governor John Kasich. It's a group that went virtually unnoticed during the last three or so GOP debates, and is likely to go unnoticed in this one as well.

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