- The Washington Times - Monday, December 14, 2015

Donald Trump has bulldozed his way atop the Republican presidential race over the past six months, leaving the carcasses of fellow candidates and conventional political wisdom in his wake and confounding the survivors.

With the next debate Tuesday, some of his rivals who have struggled to figure out how to handle the enigmatic real estate tycoon appear to be settling on a strategy of avoidance. They figure Mr. Trump’s campaign will collapse on its own eventually and that it’s probably more advantageous to use their time to battle for non-Trump voters.

“I think the contest is going to focus on the 65 to 70 percent of the vote that is not indicating any preferences for Donald Trump,” said Charlie Gerow, a Republican political strategist who is advising Carly Fiorina’s campaign. “How well the candidates distinguish themselves, both on issues and personality over the course of the next month, I think will be very, very, significant in this race.”

The Republican field is stable as the debate approaches, but the contours within it have changed. Retired neurosurgeon Ben Carson has faded in Iowa and New Hampshire, and Sen. Ted Cruz has taken his place in Iowa as the chief alternative to Mr. Trump. In New Hampshire, Sen. Marco Rubio is the second choice. New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie has resurrected himself, reaching third.

Mr. Christie also leaped back onto the main stage in CNN’s prime-time debate after being relegated to the undercard the last time.

Rounding out the main stage will be Mrs. Fiorina, former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush, Ohio Gov. John Kasich and Sen. Rand Paul.

More than a month has passed since the last showdown, and this is the first debate since the terrorist attacks in Paris and San Bernardino, California, which have boosted national security as a top voter concern.

Mr. Trump has managed once again to dominate the headlines by calling for a “total and complete” shutdown on Muslims entering the U.S. until the government establishes a better system to ensure terrorists are not evading detection.

His fellow candidates have repudiated his proposal, and party leaders are increasingly fearful of a Trump nomination.

The Washington Post reported last week that Republican officials and establishment candidates are plotting to deny Mr. Trump the nomination if the primary race ends without anyone having a clear majority of delegates for the national convention.

Mr. Carson pounced on the report and warned that he would leave the Republican Party if its leaders tried to manipulate the contest.

Terrorism is likely to dominate the debate, and the dynamic between Mr. Trump and Mr. Cruz will be closely watched.

The senator from Texas had shied away from attacking the billionaire businessman, but that changed after The New York Times reported last week that Mr. Cruz questioned Mr. Trump’s judgment during a closed-door meeting and predicted that “gravity is pulling” him down in the race.

Mr. Trump responded by saying Mr. Cruz has acted like a “maniac” in the Senate.

Former Nevada Gov. Robert List, who supports Mr. Rubio, said the key for Mr. Trump’s rivals is to focus on the 75 percent of voters who are unlikely to support Mr. Trump.

“In my estimation, the two individuals who are going to emerge at some point as Trump’s primary opposition are Sen. Cruz and Sen. Rubio, and I think it is certainly important for Sen. Rubio to continue to distinguish himself from Sen. Cruz as well as the other folks on down the line” who are not Mr. Trump.

Mr. Cruz has picked up a couple of major endorsements in recent weeks in Iowa: Rep. Steve King and Robert Vander Plaats, head of the Iowa Family Leader, a Christian conservative group.

But Mr. Trump continues to lead nationally and in New Hampshire and South Carolina, according to the latest Real Clear Politics average of polls.

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