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Final GOP Debate Of 2015 Likely To Focus On National Security


We'll likely get a feel tonight for just how much the presidential campaign has shifted focus. The Republican debate in Las Vegas will be the first since the attacks in Paris and San Bernardino. And in recent weeks, ISIS and mass violence have dominated the political conversation. The GOP candidates taking the stage do not all agree on how best to keep Americans safe. Here's NPR's Don Gonyea.

DON GONYEA, BYLINE: The last debate on November 10 focused mostly on the economy, then days later, this.


UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: The city of Paris, under attack, over a hundred killed in multiple apparently coordinated shootings and bombings, rocking several bloody scenes.

GONYEA: Then in the first week of December, another jolt.


UNIDENTIFIED MAN #2: Southern California terrorized, at least two shooters opened fire at a social services center.

GONYEA: GOP candidates pointed fingers at President Obama, saying he didn't take terrorist threats and ISIS seriously enough. The assailants in California were Muslim and radicalized, prompting Donald Trump to call for stopping all Muslims from entering the U.S.


DONALD TRUMP: Until our country's representatives can figure out what the hell is going on.

GONYEA: Such tough talk from Trump was nothing new. There was his expletive-laden call to bomb ISIS. That was even before Paris. Amid all of this, Trump surged in national polls of GOP voters. Other candidates, including Marco Rubio, Jeb Bush, Chris Christie and John Kasich called Trump unhinged, offensive and ridiculous. Ted Cruz, who hopes to win over Trump supporters when, as he expects, Trump fades, was more mild in his critique. He spoke to NBC that day.


TED CRUZ: No, that is not my policy. I believe the focus should focus on radical Islamic terrorism.

GONYEA: So that's the backdrop for tonight's debate. Trump remains on top. Ben Carson has slipped after several stumbles on foreign policy. Gaining ground is Sen. Cruz, who suddenly has a big lead in a new Des Moines Register poll in Iowa thanks to evangelical voters. So, Trump is now going after Cruz.


TRUMP: I don't think he's qualified to be president.


TRUMP: Because I don't think he has the right temperament. I don't think he's got the right judgment.

GONYEA: That was on Fox News Sunday. Cruz, meanwhile, questioned Trump's seriousness and judgment in audio leaked to the New York Times. He was speaking to donors.


CRUZ: Who am I comfortable having their finger on the button?

GONYEA: Tonight is important to another candidate who's gotten a boost since the last debate, Chris Christie. He's been endorsed by New Hampshire's biggest newspaper, the Union Leader. Trump still leads in the state, but Christie sees an opportunity. On the Michael Medved radio show, he dismissed Trump's proposed ban on Muslims.


CHRIS CHRISTIE: There are folks in this race who don't care about what the law says because they're used to just being able to fire people indiscriminately on television.


GONYEA: In all, there'll be nine candidates on the main stage. Among them, Ohio Gov. John Kasich, who's been Trump's most persistent critic in the race. A super PAC supporting him has a new web ad that tries to deflate Trump's blue-collar appeal. It features Trump and a hippo.


UNIDENTIFIED MAN #4: One bellows. One bellows malarkey. Donald Trump repeatedly says one thing, does another. The hypocrite says he's champion of American workers but had his line of Trump ties made in China.

GONYEA: Iowa votes in less than seven weeks. The debates are taking on new urgency. Don Gonyea, NPR News, Washington.

GREENE: I've got a feeling many of you are feeling that urgency in the form of emails coming from campaigns. Well, later today, on All Things Considered, we'll hear more about politicians and their email pitches for money and especially some of the creative subject lines they use to try and grab our attention. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

You're most likely to find NPR's Don Gonyea on the road, in some battleground state looking for voters to sit with him at the local lunch spot, the VFW or union hall, at a campaign rally, or at their kitchen tables to tell him what's on their minds. Through countless such conversations over the course of the year, he gets a ground-level view of American elections. Gonyea is NPR's National Political Correspondent, a position he has held since 2010. His reports can be heard on all NPR News programs and at NPR.org. To hear his sound-rich stories is akin to riding in the passenger seat of his rental car, traveling through Iowa or South Carolina or Michigan or wherever, right along with him.
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