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LAS VEGAS (AP) — Republican presidential candidates take the debate stage Tuesday night for the first time in a month, their race reshaped by national security threats but still dominated by outsider contenders. Now it’s Ted Cruz challenging front-runner Donald Trump.
Trump will once again be standing at center stage, reflecting the billionaire businessman’s surprising dominance in the GOP primary campaign. His newest test, at least in the leadoff Iowa caucus, comes from Texas Sen. Cruz, a chief antagonist of Republican leaders in Washington.
The debate will be the first for Republicans since the attacks in Paris and San Bernardino, California, that increased concerns about terrorism in the United States. Hours before the debate was to begin, officials in Los Angeles closed all schools after an emailed threat.
Trump’s response to the terror attacks was to call for a total ban on Muslims entering the U.S. The proposal was roundly criticized by his rivals but appears to be resonating with some of his supporters.
With less than two months until voting begins, Cruz is trying to pitch himself as a more electable alternative to Trump. The Texas senator has a robust campaign infrastructure and conservative appeal, though some Republican leaders believe his hardline positions and prickly demeanor would put him at a disadvantage in a general election contest against Democratic front-runner Hillary Clinton.
Trump and Cruz have maintained a friendly relationship for months, but signs of a split have emerged in recent days, with Cruz appearing to question Trump’s judgment at a private fundraiser, according to audio obtained by The New York Times, and Trump calling Cruz “a little bit of a maniac.”
Trump didn’t go after Cruz by name during a Las Vegas rally on the eve of the debate, but said the prime-time faceoff could turn messy.
“I am giving them a chance for them to make total fools of themselves in front of millions of people,” Trump said, adding that he was expecting to be attacked. “This will not be like an evening in paradise for me. Do we agree?” he asked.
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Pace reported from Washington. Associated Press writers Scott Bauer in Madison, Wisconsin, Kathleen Ronayne in Wolfeboro, New Hampshire, and Michelle Rindels in Las Vegas contributed to this report.