No one seriously hoped they’d snuff out the support Donald Trump enjoys in the Republican Party. Instead, on the debate stage on the Las Vegas Strip, his rivals were looking to emerge as the most credible alternative to the bombastic billionaire.
As the GOP campaign has grown more focused on foreign policy in the wake of terrorist attacks in Paris and San Bernardino, Calif., the debate Tuesday night on the Las Vegas Strip put competing Republican strategies to defend the nation — and win next year’s general election — on stark display.
Senator Ted Cruz of Texas and Senator Marco Rubio of Florida were vying for one of the slots as the chief anti-Trump, while former Florida governor Jeb Bush showed new life, New Jersey Governor Chris Christie appealed to those frustrated by the drama and political outsiders made a final pitch during the final GOP debate of 2015 with millions watching.
With the Republican campaign slowing as the holiday season approaches, the candidates seized their last opportunity to define themselves before the new year.
Unlike the four previous debates, the Republicans seemed eager to swing widely at one another.
It took a painful half a year, but Trump’s rivals seem to have finally cracked the code for getting under the billionaire’s skin, finding their target in the grand theater constructed to house a production of The Phantom of the Opera.
Bush learned that interrupting his foe put him off his game. Senator Rand Paul of Kentucky figured out that, by suggesting Trump discarded the Constitution, he could flummox the GOP front-runner. And South Carolina Senator Lindsey Graham, who is polling so poorly that he didn’t even qualify for the same debate stage, so irked the real estate giant with his comments that Trump went after him too.
To be sure, Trump still leads in public polling and remains a formidable foe, especially when his ego is at risk. But the evening suggested that Trump is starting to feel the pressures of being the front-runner.