A Fractious, Fragmented Republican Debate

The GOP candidates shared a stage in Vegas, but seemed locked in their own, only occasionally intersecting conflicts.

Mark J. Terrill / AP

The fifth Republican debate had the feel of a Chekhov play—a cast of characters together on the same stage, but each involved in their own, only occasionally interlocking, conflicts. Near the center, Marco Rubio and Ted Cruz squared off in a series of detailed, wonky disputes about the military and surveillance. Meanwhile, a bit to the side and largely unawares, Jeb Bush and Donald Trump tried to one-up each other. Off to the right, John Kasich, Chris Christie, and Carly Fiorina vied to prove most willing to start a war. And nearly off in the wings, Rand Paul delivered a series of wry commentaries on the unfolding drama. (Ben Carson must have missed rehearsals; he had little to say.)

What unified the nine candidates on stage was their insistence that the Obama administration had failed to keep Americans safe, falling short in its efforts both stateside and abroad. It was a bleak, fearful debate. But the rivals offered disparate prescriptions for how to respond to this weakness, and were often vague. The main takeaways from the evening were that political correctness is bad and that most of the field, except perhaps Trump and Paul, are eager to deploy American troops to Syria and Iraq.

On occasion, the set seemed to erupt in chaos with several candidates confronting each other as the increasingly beleaguered moderators sought, and sometimes failed, to maintain control. The first big battle of the night came between Senators Ted Cruz, Marco Rubio, and Rand Paul over surveillance. Rubio accused Cruz of having weakened American security by opposing NSA metadata collection. Cruz was quick to punch back: “I would note that Marco knows what he’s saying isn’t true.” Paul fought his way in, noting that there was no evidence that metadata would have prevented the attacks in San Bernardino, yet simultaneously accusing Rubio of being an ally of Democratic Senator Chuck Schumer. It was a peculiar left-right combo. (Finally, Chris Christie quipped, “If your eyes are glazed over like mine, this is what it’s like to be on the floor of the Senate.” He went on to argue bluntly that posture rather than mastery of policy details is what matters in a leader. Fair enough.)

That set the tone for the Rubio-Cruz dynamic all night. Later, Rubio again assailed Cruz for voting against the National Defense Authorization Act—evidence, he said, that his colleague from Texas was an insufficiently staunch backer of the American military. It was a tricky move from Rubio, trying to turn Cruz’s famous inclination to vote against things into a liability. Again, Cruz said that Rubio was lying. Cruz continued to chart a course that was slightly more hawkish than Paul’s but more dovish than Rubio’s, a sort of realpolitik that says not every despotic dictator is worth deposing. Rubio fired back: “Obama and Clinton’s strategy is to lead from behind. It sounds like his strategy is not to lead at all.”

Later, the two men tangled over immigration. Cruz criticized Rubio for his role in the Gang of Eight immigration plan, while Rubio claimed Cruz was softer on immigration than he wanted voters to believe, eventually eliciting a lawyerly answer from Cruz: “I have never supported legalization, and I don’t intend to support legalization.”* It was a clever move by Rubio, pinning Cruz down on an issue where he has stayed strategically quiet, and forcing him to take a position that could be damaging later.

Despite predictions to the contrary, Cruz didn’t tangle much with Trump. That was left to Jeb Bush. Bush was, once again, stumbling and unsteady at times, and it’s hard to remember many memorable points he made. Trump repeatedly steamrolled Bush, but Jeb went after Trump again and again, eventually seeming to get under Trump’s skin—the first time that has happened in any of these debates.

Meanwhile, Kasich and Christie competed to offer the most hawkish views on the Middle East. All of the candidates agreed that one essential part of fighting ISIS was to get Arab nations to field large numbers of ground troops. That’s been a staple of the Obama administration’s strategy, too, but it’s been unsuccessful—a failing the Republican candidates blamed on broken trust after the Iran nuclear deal. But most were ready to put American boots on the ground. Kasich bragged that he’d been calling for large numbers of ground troops since February. Christie, not to be one-upped in belligerence, confidently asserted he’d shoot down a Russian plane even if it led to World War III.

It was Rand Paul, who nearly didn’t make the cut for the debate, who delivered the most interesting performance of the night, and easily his best of the debates so far. A congested-sounding Paul excelled at offering calm, sober critiques of his rivals. In addition to his reminder that metadata collection likely wouldn’t have prevented the San Bernardino attacks, he warned against repeating what he saw as past mistakes. “If you believe in regime change, you’re mistaken.” He noted that there was no contradiction between disdaining dictators and not supporting open-ended military interventions to topple them. He pointed out that Trump’s ideas would violate both the Geneva Conventions and the First Amendment. It may not be enough to rescue a listless campaign, but it was often the most interesting, thought-provoking commentary.

No one was perfect. The moderators routinely had their questions ignored, and when they followed up were often ignored a second time. At several points, chaos erupted. In one instance, Wolf Blitzer had to filibuster over Ted Cruz to get him to stop talking. As for the candidates, Cruz offered an incoherent answer when pressed on whether he would carpet-bomb the ISIS capital of Raqqa. His exchanges with Rubio occasionally offered more heat than light, but they laid bare the choice for non-Trump Republicans between two different visions of what the GOP and its nominee ought to be: two different policies on surveillance, military spending, and foreign policy. Both senators came out of the debate in strong positions.

Jeb Bush’s performance may have been stronger than previous debates, and his willingness to attack at Trump like Grant at Cold Harbor will no doubt win the gratitude of the establishment. But it didn’t seem like a turnaround moment for Bush, who’s still seeking mojo. Carly Fiorina has also largely disappeared from view since dominating the first two rounds of debates, and offered her shakiest performance so far. In support of a call for tighter, modernized Patriot Act, she told a meandering, incomprehensible story about helping the NSA after September 11, when she was CEO of HP. Later, she insisted that Silicon Valley executives would happily assist the government in surveilling terrorists—a bizarre statement, given that the executives themselves have clearly disagreed with that approach.

Ben Carson was hardly present. Having bragged early on that he was ready for tough national-security questions, he quickly punted. Given a chance to weigh in on whether Cruz or Paul was right about surveillance, he sheepishly shrugged, “You’ll have to ask them.” Later, asked whether he’d be willing to launch bombing campaigns that might kill children, he delivered a rambling answer that began with recounting brain surgery on kids and concluded by saying that killing people with bombs might be better than the alternative.

And how about Trump? No one save Bush was willing to attack him; Cruz conspicuously passed up a chance, a kindness Trump repaid in kind by reversing his suggestion that Cruz didn’t have the judgment to be president. (Keep in mind, Trump never reverses himself.) He offered plenty of nonsensical statements—a proposal to somehow shut off parts of the Internet, and doubling down on punishing terrorists’ families. In line with his past defense of progressive taxation, he sometimes sounded like a liberal Democrat, bemoaning the trillions spent on Middle Eastern wars that could have been used to build infrastructure in America. (A wall, perhaps.) At times, the audience in Las Vegas even booed him. Five debates in, Trump doesn’t make any more sense than he did at the start, but it remains impossible to turn away from him. So far, Republican primary voters can’t or won’t. —David Graham

* This article originally attributed this exchange to Ted Cruz and Rand Paul, rather than Ted Cruz and Marco Rubio. We regret the error.

11:18 pm: A closing note: Donald Trump frequently makes offensive statements, often transgressing against deeply held norms, so much so that we begin to ignore them. But the abhorrent statement that he would strike out at the family members of terrorists may well be a new low, even for him. —Conor Friedersdorf

11:15 pm: Two notable confrontations of the night were between Ted Cruz and Marco Rubio, and Jeb Bush and Donald Trump. The point of contention between Cruz and Rubio: immigration. Cruz went after Rubio for his role in the Gang of Eight, a group of senators that drafted immigration reform, in 2013. Rubio may still have to iron out how he approaches the topic in the primary and still appeals to the conservative base like Cruz has. Meanwhile, Trump and Bush again came head-to-head, as they have in the past, but this time Bush put up a fight after delivering jabs at the Republican frontrunner. —Priscilla Alvarez

11:14 pm: It’s quite an advantage for CNN to give Donald Trump an extra one-on-one interview at the tail end of the debate. —Conor Friedersdorf

11:13 pm: Trump just dodged a clarification question about his commitment to the GOP. “No, not no matter what,” would he be a Republican in the general election. —Tyler Bishop

11:11 pm: There is no predicting what Republican voters will do this election cycle. But among tonight’s candidates, I’d feel best leaving the stage if I were Ted Cruz. I don’t see how he could’ve better positioned himself to win over Trump supporters than he did, all the while avoiding a risky confrontation with Trump that could’ve damaged them both. Cruz didn’t need to attack Trump in part because Jeb Bush (who cannot persuasively pose as an alpha) and Marco Rubio (who got tripped up on immigration) did attack him. And Trump, in turn, chose not to attack Ted Cruz. It makes me wonder what happens if Trump fades and Cruz is actually president. Would Trump angle for an appointment of some sort? What he wants, really, has confounded pundits from the beginning, and it still confounds me tonight. —Conor Friedersdorf

11:09 pm: One surprise tonight: None of the candidates were asked about the Paris climate talks, the agreement that came from it, and whether or not they would defy it if elected. Given the role that President George W. Bush played in torpedoing the Kyoto Protocol and the candidates' reticence towards Obama's climate-change policy, it's an important one with potentially global ramifications. —Matt Ford

11:09 pm: Despite complaining heatedly about CNN's questions during the debate, Trump says afterward: "I really enjoyed this one in particular. I had a great time." He made a brief reference to "unfair" questions, but didn't harp on it. —Russell Berman

11:07 pm: Carson: "I've traveled to 58 different countries, thank God every day I was born in this country, want to make sure we preserve that." He’s not willing to give up American principles for the sake of political correctness.Molly Ball

11:07 pm: Trump: “Our country doesn't win anymore...We have to change our whole way, health-care system is going to implode, nothing works. If I'm elected we will win again; we will win a lot.”Molly Ball

11:06 pm: Cruz's "we win, they lose" closing statement is a good summary for tonight's overall rhetoric on foreign policy. —Marina Koren

11:05 pm: Cruz: "Judgment. Strength. Clarity and trust. Barack Obama doesn't believe in American leadership; he is wrong." Cruz says he will govern like Reagan, unleashing the economy and rebuilding the military. "We win, they lose.” —Molly Ball

11:06 pm: Rubio: "What's at stake in this election is our very identity as a people and a nation … Millions of americans feel like they're going to be left behind." —Molly Ball

11:05 pm: Jeb: "My proven record...my detailed plans...I don't make false promises, I deliver real results." It is, as usual, a little garbled. —Molly Ball

11:04 pm: Carly Fiorina touts her experience keeping a corporation safe after 9/11. When Jeb Bush says his brother kept “us" safe on 9/11, maybe he’s talking about "corporate persons" too? —Conor Friedersdorf

11:03 pm: Fiorina: "To keep our nation safe we have to begin by beating Hillary Clinton. We need to unify our government, we need to be better than our politics. We need a real conservative in the White House.” —Molly Ball

11:02 pm: It's hard to believe that Christie can so brazenly play the 9/11 card a full eight years after Rudy Giuliani was mocked for his over-reliance on the same strategy. With a renewed focus on terrorism, perhaps it resonates anew with rank-and-file Republicans. —Russell Berman

11:02 pm: Christie: 9/11. Terrorism. Radical jihadist terrorism. It's real. “You won't have to worry when I'm president of the United States … I will protect America from the wars that are being brought to our doorstep." —Molly Ball

11:00 pm: Kasich: "Let me give you a little tip on how to win Ohio. It's reform, it's growth, it's hope, it's opportunity, it's security." He calls for a big, bold, positive message. —Molly Ball

11:00 pm: "No Republican has ever been elected president of the United States without winning Ohio," says Kasich, who—would you look at that!—is, coincidentally, the governor of Ohio. —Marina Koren

11:00 pm: After a strong debate distinguishing himself on foreign policy and civil liberties, Rand Paul chooses to close by talking about fiscal conservatism. I wonder what his thinking is. —Conor Friedersdorf

10:58 pm: Trump's commitment to the GOP might also have been motivated by the practical hurdles of running as an independent. Rules in Texas and Ohio, for example, prevent him from running on a third-party line once he filed to run in the Republican primary, which he did in recent days. —Russell Berman

10:57 pm: It was a surprising moment of (surely affected) humility by Trump, though of course he could renege. But the authentic tone of respect was new and the opposite of his usual bluster. —Molly Ball

10:55 pm: Trump makes a bit of news by reassuring Republicans that he would not run as an independent after hinting recently that he might back off of his summertime pledge. "I am totally committed to the Republican Party," he said. (Then again, Trump has always left himself room to change his mind.) —Russell Berman

10:54 pm: The dog that didn't bark tonight was the clash between Trump and Cruz, who are now battling for first place in Iowa. Cruz declined to criticize him earlier and Trump backed off his reference earlier this week that Cruz was "a little bit of a maniac.” —Russell Berman

10:53 pm: Donald Trump’s facial expression as Ted Cruz speaks: “Is this an attack on me or not?” —Matt Ford

10:51 pm: "He's just fine, don't worry about him," says Trump, when Bash asks the real estate mogul about calling Cruz "a maniac." Trump pats Cruz on the back, which was kind of adorable. —Marina Koren

10:50 pm: Trump is answering a question on the nuclear triad in the same way I would answer a question in English class when I hadn't done the reading. —Russell Berman

10:49 pm: The only times that global warming has surfaced in this debate, held directly after the Paris climate talks, is when GOP candidates have mocked the Obama administration’s efforts to deal with the problem. The moderators, though, have yet to question the candidates on it. —Yoni Appelbaum

10:48 pm: Jeb Bush leans awfully heavily on the conceit that his opponents aren’t “serious.” In political journalism, that’s a trope that was long ago mocked into obsolescence, and it would probably be better for Bush if he found a different word, too. —Conor Friedersdorf

10:46 pm: Ben Carson uses the North Korea question to wander through other topics from using energy resources to weaken Russia to upgrading U.S. submarines. He's been hit before for his lack of foreign-policy credentials, including by some of his own advisors, so you can understand his eagerness to show he's catching up. —Matt Ford

10:46 pm: Carson turns a question about the Hermit Kingdom into a weird disquisiton on energy independence. —Sacha Zimmerman

10:45 pm: Months ago, in their respective debate prep sessions, foreign-policy advisors apparently told all the GOP candidates, “Don’t worry if they ask about North Korea––just say you’ll work with the Chinese." —Conor Friedersdorf

10:45 pm: After about two hours, the debate finally moves beyond the Middle East to North Korea, although both Fiorina and Carson pivot to talking about containing China and somehow getting them to help pressure Kim Jong Un. —Russell Berman

10:43 pm: So tonight, GOP candidates have said that women can fight wars (Pataki) and "commit heinous acts" of terror (Christie). It's a great night for feminism! —Molly Ball

10:42 pm: Fiorina: “If we want China’s support, we have to push back on China.” Great plan. —James Fallows

10:37 pm: “There is much more coming up,” threatens Wolf Blitzer. “We are only just beginning.” —Yoni Appelbaum

10:36 pm: Bush, the candidate who famously said that illegal immigration can be an act of love, doubles down on the need to secure the border. As he lists off what he wants to see happen—more fencing, more border control—Bush sounds quite a bit like some of his Republican rivals who so far have staked out a position far to his right on immigration. —Clare Foran

10:36 pm: If only Marco Rubio were as cautious as getting one war of choice wrong as he seems to be about getting one refugee wrong—last time around, the wrong call on a war of choice cost more than 5,000 lives and trillions of dollars, far more costly than even the most devastating terrorist attack in US history. —Conor Friedersdorf

10:35 pm: Ben Carson did something interesting with his answer about Syrian refugees. He shifted the conversation about allowing them into the U.S. by saying that he’s personally heard from Syrians who simply wish to return home—and need more security to do so. That may turn out to be a strong response for a candidate who is struggling on matters of foreign policy. —Tyler Bishop

10:32 pm: The immigration debate illustrated the perceived difference between Rubio and Cruz: Rubio is seen by some as incapable of winning the Republican primary because of his support for legislation backed by Obama and congressional Democrats in 2013, while Cruz is seen as unelectable in a general election because of his hard-right positions, including immigration. —Russell Berman

10:31 pm: He’s up on stage with a raft of senators, and likes to emphasize that he’s a political novice—but when he gets going, Ben Carson can filibuster with the best of them. —Yoni Appelbaum

10:30 pm: Jeb Bush’s call to train local police to be the eyes and ears for immigration enforcers is not going to endear him to the Hispanic voters that his ostensible presidency always relied upon winning. —Conor Friedersdorf

10:29 pm: Trump on immigration: “We welcome people to come in, but they have to come in legally.” Except for Muslims. —Marina Koren

10:29 pm: Marco Rubio gets Ted Cruz to utter a line on immigration that Democrats will love if he is a general election candidate: “I have never supported legalization, and I don't intend to support legalization.” —Russell Berman

10:28 pm: There was a time when Marco Rubio and Ted Cruz were lumped together as Tea Party senators. Few expected then that they’d be at each other’s throats as antagonists in a presidential primary. —Conor Friedersdorf

10:25 pm: Cruz name drops Trump in his response to immigration: “We will build a wall that works and I’ll get Donald Trump to pay for it.” Trump has said that he would have Mexico pay for the wall. “I’ll build it,” he volunteers.—Priscilla Alvarez

10:24 pm: Asked about immigration, Marco Rubio lays out a piecemeal approach, which will eventually “leave the door open” for a path to citizenship for undocumented immigrants. This is a sensitive topic for Rubio after failed reform in 2013. As he did earlier in the debate, he’s stuck to his line on learning from 2013. —Priscilla Alvarez

10:22 pm: Jeb Bush sounds extremely unsure of himself as he asks the moderators: “So I can bring up something, I think, right?” before attempting to land an attack against Trump accusing the real-estate mogul of not being tough enough to lead the United States. Ah, the irony. —Clare Foran

10:21 pm: Trump notes that Jeb keeps moving farther away from center stage, where the top-polling candidates are: “Pretty soon you're going to be off” the end of the stage. —Nora Kelly

10:20 pm:Maybe the most useful act of Jeb Bush’s public life will be involuntarily sacrificing himself to make Donald Trump look like the bully that he is. —Conor Friedersdorf

10:20 pm: Jeb seems to have actually gotten under Trump's skin! That may be a first. —Molly Ball

10:19 pm: For the first time in his life, Donald Trump complains about being talked about too much. —Matt Ford

10:18 pm: As Republican in-fighting continues, Fiorina trains her sights on Democrats. The audience applauds as Fiorina points a finger at Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama, making the claim that the Democratic frontrunner and the president are “responsible for the growth of ISIS because they precipitously withdrew from Iraq.” —Clare Foran

10:18 pm: Also, Jeb deliciously implies that Trump not only relies on the Sunday morning shows, he watches Saturday morning cartoons. —Sacha Zimmerman

10:17 pm: Jeb is actually having a decent debate. His affect still needs work, but he's less garbled than before, and his attacks on Trump seem heartfelt rather than canned. —Molly Ball

10:16 pm: Jeb Bush hits Trump again: "I would seek out the best advice that exists.” And not from “the shows.” —Priscilla Alvarez

10:16 pm: Jeb gets Socratic: I know what I don’t know. —Sacha Zimmerman

10:15 pm: Fiorina's Russia policy actually lines up with what the administration has been doing for months. She said she would not speak to Putin until certain conditions are met. Obama has said that plenty of times since last March, when Russia annexed Crimea. —Marina Koren

10:14 pm: Chris Christie would shoot down a Russian plane in Syria. If it started World War III, well, a no-fly zone means a no-fly zone. —Conor Friedersdorf

10:13 pm: Meanwhile, in Washington .... While the Republican candidates debate in Las Vegas, the party's leadership in Congress is briefing lawmakers on the details of a major $1.1 trillion agreement to fund the government for the rest of the fiscal year and extend dozens of tax provisions that could add hundreds of billions of dollars to the deficit. With a temporary spending bill set to expire this week, the House and Senate are likely to vote on the bills—which will total thousands of pages—by Thursday. Among the key policies reportedly included in the package: an end to the 40-year ban on U.S. oil exports and the extension of a series of energy and low-income tax credits included in the President Obama's stimulus package. You likely won't hear it brought up during the debate, however, since its states focus is national security and foreign policy. —Russell Berman

10:12 pm: A time for HP. A time for California gubernatorial runs. A time for presidential runs. A time for one-liners. A time to cast away empty printer ink cartridges. A time to refrain from negotiating. —Conor Friedersdorf

10:12 pm: Kasich has been the most hawkish figure in this debate, calling for lots of ground troops, provocations against Russia, and more.—David Graham

10:11 pm: Rand Paul: “We have to have a more realistic foreign policy––not a utopian one." —Conor Friedersdorf

10:11 pm: Kasich, with a bold plea for World War III: "Frankly, it's time we punched the Russians in the nose."—David Graham

10:11 pm: Assad's policy in recent years has been to crush moderate opposition and force the international community to choose between ISIS or similar groups and his regime. Some of the candidates' answers tonight opposing Assad's fall are, for better or worse, validating his grand strategy in the Syrian civil war. —Matt Ford

10:09 pm: Hugh Hewitt isn’t so much a stand-in for conservatives in tonight’s debate as he is a stand-in for his particular brand of foreign policy, which tilts neoconservative. His questions are getting increasingly argumentative. —Conor Friedersdorf

10:08 pm: I'm not so sure, Sacha. Republican candidates have seldom gone wrong by attacking a moderator. —David Graham

10:07 pm: Cruz missteps by steamrolling Blitzer. People hate that. It’s uncomfortable and no one catches the point he’s making anyway. —Sacha Zimmerman

10:07 pm: Paul, again the voice of reason, says wars can't be about good and evil— there's vice and virtue on both sides; the question is whether regime change is a good idea. —Molly Ball

10:05 pm: Ben Carson with the analogy of the night with his comparison of foreign policy to an oxygen mask on an airplane. —Priscilla Alvarez

10:05 pm: Carson, who was earlier talking about putting boots on the ground, now says: "The fact is the Middle East has been in turmoil for thousands of years." He says our actions can't do much. So, um, what exactly does he want? —David Graham

10:04 pm: Trump also said we should take the trillions we spend on war and spend it on roads and bridges instead, which is an argument you usually hear from Democrats. —Molly Ball

10:04 pm: One reason the GOP establishment is having so much trouble discrediting Donald Trump: It’s still wedded to the foreign-policy legacy of George W. Bush. And Trump is not wedded too it. Neither are his supporters. It’s too bad they didn’t flock to one of the other neocon skeptics on the stage instead. —Conor Friedersdorf

10:03 pm: An hour and a half in, where's Putin? There's been talk of "bad guys" like Assad, but no mention of the Russian president. The debate was always going to be about ISIS, but Putin is an easy talking point when it comes to national security. John Kerry met with Putin in Moscow today, and accepted the Kremlin's demand that Assad's future be determined by the Syrian people, and not outside players. —Marina Koren

10:02 pm: I’ve watched these debates since 1976. We have hit rock bottom in info-content and common sense. Reagan-Mondale was like Lincoln-Douglas. —James Fallows

10:01 pm: Trump offers an impassioned lament about the negative effects of American intervention in the Middle East. —David Graham

10:00 pm: Cruz has been saying for a long time that he's positioned at the midpoint between McCainian interventionism and Paulian isolationism. This debate is doing a good job at drawing him out on what exactly what that means. —Molly Ball

10:00 pm: Purple unicorns are far more rare than regular unicorns. —Sacha Zimmerman

9:59 pm: Cruz: The "moderate rebels" whom Americans like Obama seek to assist are like a "purple unicorn"—they simply don't exist. —David Graham

9:58 pm: If the race were to boil down to Ted Cruz vs. Marco Rubio, the latter will be in the unenviable position of competing in a GOP primary with the same positions on Libya and Syria as Hillary Clinton. —Conor Friedersdorf

9:56 pm: Ted Cruz is again stealing territory from Rand Paul, attacking both the Obama administration and fellow Republicans for pursuing foreign adventurism at the expense of protecting core American interests. He defends the realpolitik of backing friendly dictators who oppose Islamism. —David Graham

9:54 pm: Fiorina and Carson are both attempting to brandish their professional records in an attempt to explain why they would be capable of navigating foreign-policy and national-security threats. Fiorina suggests we need a leader who has made executive decisions, while Carson talks about the lessons he has learned dealing with sick patients. It seems like a stretch, however, to think that working as a neurosurgeon or leading a company alone could offer sufficient experience. —Clare Foran

9:52 pm: What does all the talk about “boots on the ground” actually mean? Funny you should ask. —Tyler Bishop

9:51 pm: Ben Carson, who has often struggled with specifics, is showing off some knowledge here about the geography of ISIS control. —David Graham

9:50 pm: Very interesting to see Carly Fiorina calling for the return of Stanley McChrystal and David Petraeus, whom she says were kicked out for telling Obama harsh trusth. McChrystal was, of course, sacked after trashing the administration to ​Rolling Stone. Petraeus was promoted to CIA director and resigned amid a sex scandal—which later turned out to involve improper handling of classified materials. —David Graham

9:49 pm: Who can defeat ISIS? Carly says: "Not first year senators who have never made an executive decision in his life.” Rubio’s expression is priceless. —Sacha Zimmerman

9:48 pm: Trump's discussion of the internet is reminiscent of the late Senator Ted Stevens' widely-mocked description of "a series of tubes." It would be interesting, although not necessarily illuminating, if the moderators asked him to specify what exactly he thinks could be done to restrict ISIS's use. —David Graham

9:47 pm: Fiorina, peeved about not getting speaking time: "I hope at some point you're going to ask me my strategy for defeating ISIS.” —Marina Koren

9:47 pm: John Kasich is calling for a massive ground force in the Middle East. —David Graham

9:46 pm: “Are you going to change the Constitution?” Rand Paul returns to the debate about regulating the internet to emphasize his Libertarian roots—which certainly does make him stand out in a Republican primary debate focusing on national security. —Tyler Bishop

9:45 pm: This was true last time as well: Rand does best as a quasi-commentator/moderator, analyzing others' points and pointing out their inconsistencies. —Molly Ball

9:45 pm: So far both Donald Trump and Ben Carson are willing to stomach a large number of civilian casualties. Rand Paul. in dissent, notes that this would violate the Geneva Conventions and American values. Trump: "So they can kill us, but we can kill them?” —Matt Ford

9:44 pm: Rand Paul talking about foreign policy is not the context in which I expected to hear a candidate criticize "safe spaces" tonight. —David Graham

9:44 pm: "If you're going to close the Internet, realize, America, what that entails. It means getting rid of the First Amendment," says Rand Paul. —Molly Ball

9:44 pm: The exchange between Rubio and Cruz was very substantive and reflected real divisions on foreign policy within the GOP. The exchange between Jeb and Trump was all about style. —Molly Ball

9:43 pm: Hewitt: "So you are OK with the deaths of thousands of innocent children and civilians?" Loud boos from the crowd. Carson: "You got it." —Marina Koren

9:42 pm: Killing civilians is actually merciful if you finish the job, Carson explains. Just like opening up a child’s head. —Sacha Zimmerman

9:42 pm: What's amazing here is that Bush is citing chapter and verse for how Trump contradicts himself. He's even trying to go after Trump in Trump's own style. Bad news for Bush: Trump is always willing to be rude, and of course shouted him down. —David Graham

9:41 pm: This Bush vs. Trump exchange is doing a wonderful job of taking attention off Trump's apparent vow to intentionally kill civilians just moments ago.—Matt Ford

9:40 pm: Jeb: "You’re not going to be able to insult your way to the White House.” Polls say different. —Sacha Zimmerman

9:39 pm: And ​there's the first low-energy barb from Trump to Jeb. —Nora Kelly

9:39pm: Jeb Bush again takes aim at Donald Trump, saying he is not a “seriousness candidate.” Trump quips that “we need tough people.” —Priscilla Alvarez

9:38 pm: Much of the speculation around tonight's debate revolved around whether Trump and Cruz would spar. For now, however, Cruz and Rubio are taking up a fair amount of the spotlight by fighting over foreign policy. Cruz tries to paint Rubio as overly hawkish, while Rubio says Cruz supported military cuts that would leave the nation unprepared for the threat of terrorism abroad. —Clare Foran

9:36 pm: Now Cruz is accusing Rubio of abetting Obama and Hillary by undermining stable but dictatorial regimes abroad. This is an interesting point of distinction between Rubio's George W. Bush-style freedom agenda and Cruz's more realpolitik approach. —Molly Ball

9:35 pm: Ted Cruz is aggressively calling Marco Rubio a disingenuous liar to his face tonight. I wonder how the conservative press will react to this tomorrow. —Conor Friedersdorf

9:35 pm: Ted Cruz has made his name in the Senate by voting against things, and Rubio is calling him on it now. —Russell Berman

9:33 pm: Ted Cruz's call to carpet-bomb ISIS sounded pretty tough until Rubio upped the ante by saying airstsrikes aren't enough—we've got to have ground troops. —Molly Ball

9:32 pm: Ted Cruz is not the first candidate tonight to allude to the Gulf War era in explaining his strategy to fight ISIS. Mike Huckabee also advocated that the U.S. military return to Desert Storm-level aggression in the undercard debate. Both (and most of the other candidates) say Obama isn’t using the amount of force he should be. —Tyler Bishop

9:31 pm: Somewhere in Russia and China, regime-employed hackers are running their hands together, praying that the U.S. government undermines the ability of American companies and individuals to encrypt. There is no surer way to undermine our personal, corporate, and national security, and the inability of Republican candidates to understand this is hugely disappointing. —Conor Friedersdorf

9:31 pm: It would appear that Ted Cruz still hasn’t learned what “carpet bombing” actually means. It is, by definition, the indiscriminate bombing of a large geographic area. He may mean something other than “carpet bombing,” but when he says that “you would carpet bomb where ISIS is” and specifies hitting only the troops, what he’s actually talking about is precision bombing. Not a bravura performance. —Yoni Appelbaum

9:29 pm: Donad Trump talks about The Internet in a way sure to resonate with elderly Americans everywhere who are baffled by The Internet. —Conor Friedersdorf

9:28 pm: "You can talk freedom of speech, you can talk anything you want," Trump says, but he doesn't want ISIS using the Internet to recruit young Americans to terror. It's not really clear what he means specifically—though that's hardly new for Trump. —David Graham

9:27 pm: Trump got the first question of the debate but hadn't spoken since his brief exchange with Bush until now. As the frontrunner, he has no need to try to jump in to get his voice heard, and so far he seems content to let the others fight. —Russell Berman

9:26 pm: Fiorina proposes the federal government exercise, in essence, "parental control" over terrorists on social media. "Every parent in America is checking social media and every employer is, as well," she says. “The government can't do it?" —Marina Koren

9:26 pm: Political correctness has been a common thread in the debate thus far, with many doing away with it. Trump has taken credit for shifting the rhetoric, but it appears to be catching on among the others. —Priscilla Alvarez

9:25 pm: Bush seems to be warming up. His introduction was scripted and monotonous, but his last couple of answers had some life to them. —Marina Koren

9:24 pm: Carson said he welcomed questions on national security, but that was brutal: He was asked whether he agreed with Rand Paul or Marco Rubio on surveillance, and he just brazenly punted. Who was right? "You'll have to ask them." —David Graham

9:23 pm: Carson : "As far as monitoring is concerned, we need to make sure that any place—I don't care if it's a mosque, school, supermarket, theater—if there are a lot of people ... engaging in radicalizing activities, we need to be suspicious of it. We need to get rid of this PC stuff." —David Graham

9:23 pm: Christie tries to stand out by belittling the senators who are "debating" security issues while he actually had to make decisions as a prosecutor and governor. Hey, it's a debate! He went a little too far in scoffing at the bickering over specific legislation in the Senate. "The American people don't care about that," he said. Isn't that the whole point of a debate, rather than a rote recitation of talking points? —Russell Berman

9:22 pm: Chris Christie is basically saying that policy doesn't matter; only posturing does. Hey, it's an ethic. —David Graham

9:22 pm: Contra Chris Christie, I’m reasonably sure lots of Americans care more about debates over mass surveillance in the Senate than whatever decisions New Jersey’s governor was making at the time. —Conor Friedersdorf

9:22 pm: Rand Paul attacks Marco Rubio on immigration: “He’s the weakest of all the candidates on immigration.” Rubio has been able to tip toe around immigration in past debates, but it’s a particularly vulnerable point for the Florida senator as a result of his participation in drafting immigration reform. Dana Bash promises Paul that the issue will come up (again) later. —Priscilla Alvarez

9:21 pm: Nevada has a large and active libertarian segment, though it's easy to overestimate—Ron Paul came in 3rd in the 2012 caucuses. —Molly Ball

9:21 pm: Rand Paul seems to have a big contingent of fans in the house. They've cheered loudly for him at every opportunity. —David Graham

9:20 pm: Kasich, often described as a moderate Republican favorite, portrays fighting terrorism and fighting climate change as mutually exclusive priorities. Republican candidates often take that line, or at the very least hit the Obama administration for affording climate change attention when the threat of terror looms. Security experts caution, however, that climate change acts as a threat multiplier, and that rising temperatures on Earth will ultimately exacerbate national security threats. —Clare Foran

9:19 pm: On the split screen, it looks like these candidates are working at an American Airlines airport counter with the blue suit / red tie combo. —Sacha Zimmerman

9:18 pm: CNN's moderators aren't doing a very good job making the candidates answer the questions they actually ask. Carly Fiorina, asked about Trump's proposed Muslim ban, talks about technology instead. Kasich, asked about preventing another San Bernardino, talked about putting boots on the ground in Syria, where neither attacker visited or traveled. —Matt Ford

9:17 pm: Wow. Ted Cruz brings out “Alinskyite” to attack Marco Rubio, fighting words if ever there were any among movement conservatives, while citing right-wing talk radio host Mark Levin for good measure—and does so while defending a commonsense civil liberties reform. What a weird election. —Conor Friedersdorf

9:17 pm: Rubio implies Cruz is telling national security secrets out of school. —Sacha Zimmerman

9:16 pm: And here's how Cruz justified his vote on legislation to curb the NSA's collection of Americans' phone data: What "the Obama administration keeps getting wrong is whenever anything bad happens, they focus on law-abiding citizens instead of focusing on the bad guys. We need to focus on radical Islamic terrorists and we need to stop them before they carry out acts of terror.” —Marina Koren

9:15 pm: On the NSA reform bill, Cruz is in the rare position of being in the middle among the GOP candidates. Rubio opposed the measure because he believed its limits on metadata surveillance weakened the country, while Rand Paul opposed it because he didn't believe it went far enough in restricting government surveillance. —Russell Berman

9:14 pm: Kasich wonders why the Paris talks—in Paris!—focused on climate instead of ISIS. Will he refrain from speaking on any critical issue other than ISIS during this debate? —Sacha Zimmerman

9:13 pm: One frustrating element of this debate so far is that each candidate is getting a different question, so that we're getting answers from each of them on slightly different issues. As a result, it's hard to tease out many differences, and there's little reason for any of the candidates to really offer any specifics. (This is probably an inherent flaw of any debate with this many candidates.) —David Graham

9:12 pm: Chris Christie makes a pitch for returning to the NSA tools that have been taken away from it, in the name of fighting terrorism. But there’s no reason the tools taken away from the NSA should weaken America’s ability to prevent terrorism at all, and did not play a role in any recent terrorist plot. —Conor Friedersdorf

9:11 pm: Wolf Blitzer comments that "Americans are clearly more afraid today than at any time since 9/11." A New York Times / CBS News poll found last week that 44 percent of the public says an attack is “very” likely to happen in the next few months—the most in such polls since October, 2001.—Marina Koren

9:10 pm: Carly Fiorina pretty much claims she helped the NSA stop a terrorist attack when she ran Hewlett Packard. It's unclear what she was referencing, but she said she got a call from the NSA and cooperated by stopping a questionable shipment. —Russell Berman

9:10 pm: How much has the conversation shifted since the Snowden moment? Carly Fiorina is bemoaning the Patriot Act as far too loose for today's technology. —David Graham

9:09 pm: When asked how Ted Cruz disagrees with Donald Trump, Cruz says, “Everyone understands why Donald has suggested what he has.” His response puts to rest questions on how Cruz and Trump will engage—for now. —Priscilla Alvarez

9:08 pm: So, no one agrees Trump's proposal to ban Muslims from coming to the U.S. is a good idea. But not everyone is going to criticize him for it: Cruz and Rubio are visibly sidestepping the whole Trump aspect of that Trump proposal, and blaming Obama. —Marina Koren

9:06 pm: Hugh Hewitt—the toughest interviewer of the cycle on his show—presses Ted Cruz to clearly outline his disagreements with Trump. And Cruz, in turn, puts on a brilliant performance in which he manages to sound confident and competent without ever clearly answering the question. —Yoni Appelbaum

9:04 pm: Bush actually sticks it to Trump on the Muslim question. The former Florida governor points out that the people actually fighting ISIS on the ground right now—Kurds—are Muslims, calling them "our strongest allies." "They're Muslim," Bush says, rather forcefully. "Look, this is not a serious proposal." —Marina Koren

9:03 pm: Trump says Bush doesn't believe he’s a chaos candidate; it's just that his campaign has "been a total disaster. No one cares." Eesh. So much for Kasich's call for civility. —David Graham

9:03 pm: Jeb Bush takes aim at Donald Trump: "Donald is great at the one-liners, but he's a chaos candidate and he'd be a chaos candidate." —Priscilla Alvarez

9:02 pm: Wolf asks Trump if he's calling for an isolationist America. "We are not talking about isolation. We're talking about security," Trump replies. "We're not talking about religion. We're talking about security." —Russell Berman

9:01 pm: Donald Trump asserts that a month ago radical Islamic terrorism "came into effect” even more than it had in the past, as if to explain, without invoking it, his much criticized call for banning all Muslim immigrants. In fact, neither Paris nor San Bernardino was as damaging an attack as London let alone 9/11. Terrorism didn’t change a month ago. Trump’s political needs did. His words are nonsense if you think about them for more than a moment. But too few do that. —Conor Friedersdorf

9:01 pm: No surprises in the opening statements: Everyone wants to defeat ISIS, though they use a variety of modifiers to drive the point home. —Molly Ball

9:00 pm: Unsurprisingly, some of Trump's opening statement focused on what people think about him: “People like what I say, people respect what I say, and we've opened up a very big discussion that needed to be opened up.”—Nora Kelly

9:00 pm: A half hour after our scheduled start time, Wolf Blitzer is about to ask the first question of the debate. —David Graham

8:59 pm: Carson says he's asking Congress to declare war on ISIS. It's funny: So is Barack Obama. So far, Congress has declined to do so. —David Graham

8:58 pm: Once again, Ted Cruz obsesses about what to call America’s enemy, as if we’re in a reverse horror movie plot where not verbalizing the name of the monster causes him to appear. Would jihadists by another name kill less frequently? —Conor Friedersdorf

8:58 pm: There were high hopes (from CNN and pundits) for Cruz-Trump and Cruz-Rubio rumbles, but Cruz strikes a unifying note in his intro: “Every one of us is better prepared to keep America safe than ... Barack Obama.” —David Graham

8:57 pm: Rubio: “If you elect me president, we will have a president who believes America is the greatest country in the world, and we will have a president who acts like it.” —David Graham

8:57 pm: Considering how much experience Jeb Bush has in public life, it's hard to fathom how he actually seems to be nervous so often in these debates, as in his intro tonight. —Russell Berman

8:56 pm: The problem with Jeb Bush’s pitch––“serious times require strong leaders”––is that he just doesn’t come off like a strong leader, especially when he repeatedly stumbles over his words. —Conor Friedersdorf

8:55 pm: If I were Jeb, I’d stay away from phrases like “under the gun” right about now. —Sacha Zimmerman

8:55 pm: Snappy opening from Jeb Bush: "Our freedom is under attack. Our economy is underwater. The leading Democratic candidate is under investigation." Yet he almost immediately begins stumbling over his words ("restore the defense cuts"?) —David Graham

8:54 pm: Christie engages in catastrophizing the shutdown of LAUSD based on a hoax threat, wringing his hands about whether the kids will feel themselves to be in a safe space tomorrow. The children of Los Angeles will be just fine come Wednesday. And since we don’t have any snow days here, they won’t even miss too much class this holiday season. —Conor Friedersdorf

8:53 pm: Chris Christie brings up the news of the day: The decision by Los Angeles school officials to shut down more than 900 public schools over an emailed threat of violence. New York officials, which received the same threat, are treating it as a hoax. But whether the threat was real or not doesn't actually matter for candidates vying to be the answer to the question, "Who will keep America safe?”—Marina Koren

8:52 pm: It's generally agreed that Rand's noninterventionism no longer sells in light of recent events. But he was very sharp in the last debate, and he has the advantage of presenting a clear alternative to the entire rest of the field. It's probably still true that he's wrong for the moment. But he has an opportunity to stand out and to articulate his distinctive beliefs. —Molly Ball

8:51 pm: John Kasich, who has made shouting his main strategy in early debates, is now bemoaning the fact that politicians shout too much. —David Graham

8:50 pm: Rand Paul, who barely made it onto the prime-time stage, skipped the intro and went right after both Donald Trump and Marco Rubio for sacrificing freedom for the sake of national security. —Russell Berman

8:49 pm: The candidates love to have opening statements—they revolted when networks tried to eliminate them—but the idea that these candidates need to introduce themselves is a farce. —David Graham

8:47 pm: Rand Paul comes back to his libertarian roots, taking aim at Marco Rubio and Donald Trump for proposing the abridgment of civil liberties to defeat terrorism. Instead, he offers a more non-intervenionist alternative—calling for Arab states to take the lede in the fight against ISIS.  —Yoni Appelbaum

8:45 pm: TEAM RED: 9 Republican candidates, 6 red neckties, 1 red dress. —Conor Friedersdorf

8:44 pm: The crowd rises for the national anthem, sung by Ayla Brown. The CNN chyron identifies her as a singer/entertainer, but she’s probably here because of her pedigree: Her father is former Massachusetts Senator Scott Brown. —Yoni Appelbaum

8:40 pm: The promo-reels for these debates have grown ever longer and more elaborate, but tonight’s has the feel of the intro to a heavyweight title fight, and Wolf Blitzer sounds like a hype-man. But given that the candidates are squaring off at the Venetian in Vegas, maybe that’s appropriate. —Yoni Appelbaum

8:36 pm: The CNN panel discussion prior to the debate is a good indication of how rapidly public discourse has shifted in an alarming direction after terrorist attacks in Paris and San Bernardino. The talking heads are talking about banning Muslims from just some countries as a compromise measure, while Jake Tapper praised Dick Cheney for speaking out against banning all Muslims (and he deserves praise for it) contextualizing his position by saying that he’s “no bleeding heart”—he favored “enhanced interrogation.” I’d have said that Cheney is an unapologetic torturer, and the fact that some Trump positions are too extreme even for him shows not just that Trump is illiberal, but that there’s not even an amoral, consequentialist case for his proposals —Conor Friedersdorf

8:31 pm: It’s a truism of presidential politics that early polls don’t matter; voters don’t tune in before the holidays are over. But this time just might be different. A Pew Research Center poll out this week found that an astonishing 69 percent of Americans had seen a presidential debate—it was just 47 percent at this point in 2007. So if you’re watching with us tonight, you’re not alone. And the support that some of these candidates have amassed may be prove more solid than the shot-lived leads of many GOP candidates in the 2008 cycle. —Yoni Appelbaum

8:26 pm: In past debates Graham has had a lightness about him, cracking jokes constantly. But that humor wasn't on display tonight (save for a couple moments).—Nora Kelly

8:24 pm: The emotional resonance of Graham’s pleas was striking. He is so obviously deeply invested in these issues and not just saying what’s politically expedient. And yet he’s treading water. There was something almost heartbreaking about him. —Sacha Zimmerman

8:22 pm: The undercard debate focused entirely on national security. Lindsey Graham, Rick Santorum, George Pataki, and Mike Huckabee sparred over how each would tackle ISIS. Santorum remarked that the U.S. is in “World War III.” And Graham put his knowledge and experience in national security on display. Graham has performed well in the past, but continues to be in the second-tier—and that may not change. The debate foreshadowed the prime-time session, which is also expected to place emphasis on national security and Donald Trump’s controversial comments on barring Muslims from entering the U.S. Even if undercard candidates didn’t agree with Trump, they suggested that they would still support him if he wins the Republican nomination. —Priscilla Alvarez

8:20 pm: Takeaways from the undercard debate: It was too long. The whole thing was about terrorism, an indication of how profoundly the center of gravity of the campaign has changed since the last debate, which occurred before the Paris and San Bernardino attacks. Lindsey Graham was by far the central figure, making impassioned pleas for a more muscular war effort, citing his long record of calling for such a policy, and highlighting his experience on military issues. Graham also pointedly called out some of the mainstage candidates, particularly Trump, whom he accused of endangering the country with his rhetoric, and Cruz, whom he grouped with Rand Paul as “an isolationist.” —Molly Ball

Just two weeks ago, a terrorist attack in San Bernardino, California, killed 14 and wounded 21. Republican candidates, who had long made the fight against ISIS central to their campaigns, found themselves vying to lead a shaken nation. And, as Russell Berman writes, it has reshuffled the race.

The attacks thrust new issues to the fore: gun control, visa waivers, and religious freedom prominent among them. Donald Trump has capitalized on the atmosphere of fear, but his proposal to bar Muslims from entering the country drew withering critiques from across the political spectrum. It spoke, though, to the incoherence of America’s immigration policy, a subject other candidates have been reluctant to tackle. They have been more forceful in their criticisms of President Obama’s foreign policy (and indeed, of all of his other policies) a subject likely to resurface at the fifth GOP debate in Las Vegas.

When these candidates last met in November, Ben Carson was challenging Donald Trump’s frontrunner status. Carson has since faded, and Trump’s national support is hitting new highs, registering at 41 percent in a Monmouth University poll, and 38 percent in an ABC News/Washington Post survey. Media attacks, as Clare Foran writes, seem only to have strengthened the loyalty of his supporters.

But Ted Cruz has claimed much of the support Carson once enjoyed, surging ahead of Trump in some recent Iowa polls. The fight between Trump and Cruz is likely to claim the spotlight tonight. Cruz has, as David Graham points out, successfully positioned himself as a steadier alternative to Trump, even as he tries to peel away Trump’s support by echoing his outsider critique of the establishment. In her vivid dispatch from a recent Trump rally, my colleague Molly Ball pointed to this dynamic:

I hear, over and over again, that illegal immigration is the biggest problem we face. Almost everyone says their second-choice candidate is Ted Cruz, the senator from Texas; many express a wish that he and Trump would run on the same ticket.

If Trump does choose to go after Cruz tonight, one likely line of attack is jobs and trade, topics he has reemphasized in his most recent stump speeches. Cruz has been a committed proponent of free trade, but reversed course in June to oppose some of the Obama administration’s trade deals. Trump, by contrast, has taken a protectionist line, claiming that trade pacts ship American jobs overseas and tapping concerns about the decline of American manufacturing. Cruz had generally tried to downplay substantive disagreements with Trump, but trade is one area of undisguised dispute.

Cruz is not the only resurgent candidate. New Jersey Governor Chris Christie is showing new strength in New Hampshire, and his candid and acerbically funny interview with Jeff Goldberg suggests some of the reasons why. Marco Rubio has also done well, as he hunts for the elusive breakthrough that might enable him to consolidate establishment support. Others seem stuck in low gear. Jeb Bush, John Kasich, and Carly Fiorina are back for another round, as is Rand Paul, who barely squeaked onto the stage.

Paul, at least, avoided the fate of Lindsey Graham, Rick Santorum, George Pataki, and Mike Huckabee, all stuck in the undercard debate, hoping to make the leap back to the main stage, as Chris Christie did after the last debate.

You can find out more about all these candidates by using our 2016 Cheat Sheet, and track their rises and falls in our interactive graphic charting the frequency of their media mentions. And follow along with us tonight, as we liveblog the debate. —Yoni Appelbaum