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What Went Down In The Sixth GOP Debate
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12:06 AM

That’s it for us tonight. We’ll have a separate post-debate analysis up soon, but if you didn’t watch the debate, here are a few highlights:

Or, start at the bottom and re-live the whole glorious experience for yourself.

11:39 PM

In the last debate, Rubio attracted the most candidate-on-candidate vitriol, but this time around Cruz was the focal point on stage. He was attacked roughly 22 times — almost as many as Hillary Clinton. That’s probably not a coincidence: Cruz has been recently ascendant in the polls and in media coverage. As Trump said this evening, “No, I didn’t care before … now he’s doing better.”

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11:28 PM

Trump’s attacks and policy proposals are still driving the discussion for the GOP. Moderators asked the largest number of questions about Trump’s proposal to bar Muslim immigrants. His proposal for a tariff on Chinese trade and his questions about Cruz’s citizenship were also amplified by the moderators’ choice of topics.

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11:24 PM

Christie said Americans “know that this country is not respected around the world anymore.” If true, that would represent a big change since last spring, when the median proportion of people with a favorable view of the U.S. among 39 countries was 69 percent, according to the Pew Research Center.

11:23 PM

Bush loves to talk about his economic record in Florida. He mentions the job creation and income gains the state saw on his watch, but rarely mentions the collapse that followed.

11:19 PM

Under most scenarios, South Carolina is pretty darn important. Certainly it matters if the first two states split on the winner. If Trump wins both, the establishment is going to take whichever candidate did best in New Hampshire and try to battle back. If Cruz wins both … well, he’ll probably win South Carolina too, but we’re still going to want to see what happens after there’s been some winnowing of the establishment ranks.

11:17 PM

Farai, that’s a great question about whether South Carolina will serve to sort the GOP field this year. South Carolina served to ensure that Bob Dole won the GOP primary in 1996 (after losing New Hampshire), that George W. Bush won the nomination in 2000 (after losing New Hampshire) and that John McCain won in 2008 (after losing Iowa). But then Gingrich won South Carolina in 2012, and it didn’t matter. I think all of the early states help to winnow the field, but none of them is the silver bullet for a candidate. So who can really say for sure?

11:13 PM

I take back what I said a few minutes ago about Rubio being anemic. He really just leaned into Cruz (“I appreciate you dumping your oppo research folder here,” Cruz said in return). This is one of the most visible moments of them going after each other — a new chapter, perhaps?!

11:13 PM

Christie said that the president and his attorneys general give the benefit of the doubt to criminals, not police officers. That hasn’t been the case in South Carolina, site of this debate: Over five years through last March, police officers in the state fired guns at 209 suspects; none of the officers was convicted of a crime. A police officer in the state who killed a man last April is being charged.

11:12 PM

In 2008, the South Carolina Democratic primary was a turning point in the Democratic race, with John Edwards dropping out and Barack Obama besting Hillary Clinton. How likely do we think South Carolina is to become a major sorting mechanism for the GOP field this time around?

Here are the 2012 general election results, to give you a sense of the political geography of the state:

farai-2012-sc
11:05 PM

11:04 PM

We might have heard about the deficit at the start of that segment, but none of the candidates seems too concerned about it in his tax plan. According to the nonpartisan Tax Foundation, Cruz’s tax plan would cost $3.6 trillion — with a “t” — over 10 years. (Other estimates are even bigger.) Other candidates’ plans aren’t quite as extreme but would still reduce revenues by billions of dollars. That’s a big shift from four years ago, when Mitt Romney at least nodded toward revenue neutrality in his tax proposals.

11:03 PM

Here’s a guide to how to make sense of the kind of crime statistics Neil Cavuto just cited in his question to Christie.

10:57 PM

Some quick observations:

  1. I’m pretty sure that Cruz had a good night;
  2. I’m NOT sure that Trump had a bad night;
  3. While the substance of Jeb’s remarks has been fine, he’s been reprising a lot of tactical decisions that have sunk him to 4 percent in the polls;
  4. Rubio, rather than being a focal point for attacks, has been competent but largely absent from the frame — not sure if that’s a good or bad outcome for him on balance;
  5. Is Ben Carson still running?
10:56 PM

Ted Cruz says his value-added tax (known as a VAT) is a tax on businesses, not on consumers. Economists argue that’s a distinction without a difference. If you’re taxing businesses, they’ll pass those costs on to their customers.

10:55 PM

He’s not really here to smell the blood in the water, though — other candidates might insert themselves a bit more … like Christie.

10:55 PM

In fairness to Rubio, he’s only gotten four questions from the moderators (tied with Kasich for most neglected, so far). Cruz has gotten twice as many.

10:55 PM

That Dowd thing is so off base, I think. Rubio has seemed really anemic tonight. That speaking time tally we saw only a few minutes ago put him at the bottom of the group with Carson. He’s kinda just been there on the stage. Not really getting into things much, which is kind of his MO at this point in the campaign.

10:54 PM

Micah, Matthew Dowd thinks Rubio will benefit:

10:53 PM

It seems like the only headline coming out of tonight will be the Trump-Cruz fight. Does anyone think anything else will break through?

10:51 PM

What’s the basis for Christie’s claim that he vetoed more tax increases than any other governor in history? He attributes it to Americans for Tax Reform. They, basically, Googled it. Of course, Christie has had lots of opportunities, by governing a state with a Democratic-controlled legislature.

10:49 PM

It’s interesting that moderator Maria Bartiromo framed her question about infrastructure in the context of the national debt. As my colleague Andrew Flowers wrote earlier today, the debt and the deficit have largely disappeared as Republican talking points in this campaign.

10:44 PM

No sooner do I complain about the lack of economic discussion, and Trump dives into the details of currency and trade. Can’t get much wonkier than that!

The idea that China keeps its currency artificially low is a long-standing talking point from both the right and the left. A cheap currency helps China by making its products cheaper for buyers overseas, and it hurts U.S. exporters by making their products expensive in China. A few years ago, there was little question China’s currency was undervalued, but the Chinese government allowed the yuan (also known as the renminbi) to appreciate against the dollar in the years after the recession.

Now, however, China’s currency is once again weakening against the dollar. That’s partly because China’s economy is slowing while the U.S.’s is getting stronger. But the Chinese government also devalued the yuan last year, sparking condemnation from many U.S. lawmakers.

10:41 PM
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10:38 PM

“It’s The New York Times. They’re always wrong.” That Trump line referred to a Times article last week reporting that Trump said he backs a 45 percent tariff on Chinese imports. The Times’s Nicholas Kristof says Trump is flat-out lying.

10:36 PM

Trump, like Cruz before him, attacked The New York Times. That’s probably a good idea. According to a 2014 Pew Research Center poll, just 19 percent of self-identified Republicans and independents who lean Republican trust the Times for news on government and politics. Fox News, on the other hand, has the trust of 70 percent of this same group.

10:35 PM

Econ wonks like me are annoyed that a debate hosted by Fox Business Network, and nominally focused on the economy, has spent so much time on foreign policy. As New York Times reporter Binyamin Appelbaum quipped:

But our parochial interests aside, it’s hard to blame the moderators for shifting attention to international affairs. Just a few months ago, it looked like this election would be fought primarily on economic issues, just as the past two have. But that was before the terrorist attacks in Paris and San Bernardino. All of a sudden, voters are more concerned about terrorism than the economy.

10:34 PM

“I want security for this country,” Trump just said. Bush, in addressing the possibility of Islamic terrorists entering the U.S., took a more discursive path to decrying Trump’s statements about barring Muslims from immigrating to the U.S. And now several of the candidates have weighed in on whether the U.S. should accept Muslim immigrants, Syrian refugees, both or neither. How the States currently deal with refugees varies greatly. This Washington Post chart shows trends in the refugee resettlement by state:

farai-wapo-refugees
10:29 PM

A Quinnipiac poll a few weeks ago found that Republicans, by a narrow margin, opposed Trump’s proposal of a temporary ban on Muslims entering the country. But most Republicans backed a ban on Syrian refugees. Christie made that same distinction.

10:27 PM

One lesson from tonight: Maybe the way to trip up Trump is to engage him on process (such as over Ted Cruz’s “natural born” citizenship), where he tends to give in to his most self-indulgent impulses, rather than policy, where he’s learned how to deliver a pretty good sound bite.

10:24 PM

Trump said some of his Muslim friends support his call for a temporary ban on Muslims entering the U.S. He has wavered on this — at times he said all his Muslim friends support it, at other times that none do. I haven’t found any instance of his naming any of those Muslim friends who have supported it.

10:17 PM

Not for nothing, I have gotten no fewer than six emails from the Clinton campaign since this debate started, most taking shots at the Republicans on stage, talking about how the GOP candidates would “turn back the clock at the Supreme Court” and undo the strides Obama has made on gun safety, and how the Republicans’ anti-ISIS policies are based on bluster and not substance.

10:17 PM

Kasich’s answer about energy was surprisingly vague considering the fracking-fueled oil and gas boom his state has experienced in recent years. Ohio’s boom doesn’t get as much attention as the ones in North Dakota or Texas, but the state has quietly become a major producer of natural gas and, to a lesser degree, oil. As I alluded to earlier, that has done a lot to boost Ohio’s economy — not just directly but also through spurring the manufacturing sector, which supplies pipe and other equipment to drillers in the area. Now oil prices have plunged to just over $30 a barrel, threatening to bring the good times to an end.

10:16 PM

As we watched the Cruz and Trump debate about “New York values,” the consensus on my Twitter feed was that Trump crushed Cruz. Indeed, by bringing up 9/11, Trump seemed to me to get the upper hand. Still, I should point out that in an April 2015 YouGov poll of state favorability, more Republicans (49 percent) said they had an unfavorable view of the state than a favorable one (38 percent). Polls like this YouGov one are probably why Cruz thought it was a good idea to bring up “New York values,” even though it seemed to backfire.

10:14 PM

That was a pretty effective answer from Trump on “New York values.” Interesting that the use of the phrase “San Francisco values” has overtaken “New York values” since 9/11.

10:12 PM

For this commercial break, a brief treat:

10:09 PM
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10:07 PM
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10:06 PM

The moderators have given Cruz six questions. More than any other candidate and three times as many as they’ve given Bush, Carson, Christie and Kasich.

10:06 PM

Rubio cited remarks by Obama during the 2008 campaign: “They get bitter, they cling to guns or religion or antipathy to people who aren’t like them or anti-immigrant sentiment or anti-trade sentiment as a way to explain their frustrations.” But when Cruz said, “We defeated that gun-control legislation … and the other people on this stage were nowhere to be found,” he managed to take a long speech decrying Obama and shift the final focus to his opponents, a rather deft maneuver. And then, of course, he turned to “New York values” and Trump.

10:04 PM

Cruz is doing well. Rubio has fumbled some lines but managed to seem above the fray during the eligibility faceoff. Trump seems to be doing badly, but I think that’s mainly because of an unusually hostile crowd. Christie, Bush, Kasich and Carson seem to me to be doing their usual thing.

10:03 PM

Harry, I think Christie is actually doing kind of well, no? The audience seems to be buying what he’s selling, and he seemed to handle the Marco Rubio barbs pretty well.

10:03 PM

So who is doing well so far? Who is doing poorly?

10:02 PM

A reminder about how these debates tend to be, at least, a partial equalizer to the lopsided focus on Trump: Overall, during the past 30 days, Trump has received 5.4 times more Google search traffic than Cruz. (Media coverage has been even more lopsided.) So far during the debate, however, they’ve been virtually tied in traffic.

10:01 PM

It’s striking again just how extreme some of the comments are about the sitting president. Rubio said President Obama wants to take away everyone’s guns. Christie called the presidency a “dictatorship” and a “petulant child,” and said Republicans would “kick his rear end out of the White House.” (The 22nd Amendment will have more to do with Obama’s exit than anyone on stage.)

10:01 PM
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9:57 PM

FYI, in case you’re wondering what Rand Paul is doing with his debate skip day, check out his Twitter feed — he’s holding an online town hall and answering questions via video.

9:56 PM

Asked about Obama’s executive action to expand background checks for buying guns, Bush mentions enforcement and stricter mental-health checks. Trump also addresses the mental-health issue. Yet most Republicans agree with Obama about supporting more background checks.

9:53 PM

We’ve heard a lot from Bernie Sanders citing general election polls to prove he’s electable. I don’t put much faith in general election polls at this point because they haven’t proven to be predictive. Indeed, John Kasich’s response on facing Sanders shows Republicans are champing at the bit to face Sanders because of his support of democratic socialism. Why? Gallup polling has shown that only 47 percent of Americans are even willing to vote for a socialist. That’s below the percentage willing to vote for a Catholic, woman, African-American, Hispanic, Jew, Mormon, gay or lesbian, evangelical Christian and Muslim.

9:51 PM

Reader Jim Gorman asks about Kasich’s economic record:

As I wrote last year, evaluating governors’ economic records is tricky. They have pretty limited control over their state’s economies (though more than senators do). But Ohio’s economy is doing pretty well, with an unemployment rate of 4.5 percent and strong overall growth. It doesn’t hurt that Ohio was until recently in the midst of an oil and gas drilling boom (it’s cooled off sharply more recently).

Kasich, by the way, has been criticized by conservatives for boosting spending in Ohio, though Kasich disputes that interpretation.

9:50 PM

Other than the Cruz-Trump “birther” exchange, this debate has been pretty unmemorable so far — which tends to increase the likelihood that the Cruz-Trump exchange will be what it’s remembered for.

9:50 PM

Christie said earlier in response to Rubio that “when you’re a governor, you’re held accountable for everything you do.” He may be right in a way he didn’t mean. Voters have been saying no to governors and former governors for months during the primaries — and no one with gubernatorial experience is polling at 6 percent or higher nationally in the Republican or Democratic primaries. The best-polling candidate with gubernatorial experience? Former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush.

9:49 PM

“We’re going to win every state in that case” — that’s what Kasich said about a Bernie Sanders nomination. I’m going to take a very quick detour into the Democratic side of the race right now, but past Iowa and New Hampshire’s races: I think that worry about Sanders’s electability is going to be discussed a lot more. Right now, he’s doing pretty well in Iowa and there’s a sort of surge and perhaps surprise that he’s receiving such robust support, but it’s a real question for undecided Democratic primary voters, I think — what would a Sanders general election candidacy actually look like?

9:48 PM

“When wages don’t rise …” was Kasich’s intro to a discourse on the economy. And he’s right about that, in inflation-adjusted dollars. Real median household income in 2014 was $53,657, compared with $55,565 10 years earlier.

farai-FRED-10yr
9:46 PM
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9:44 PM

Christie says that “when you’re a governor, you’re responsible for everything you do.” But Christie’s economic record in New Jersey has been a pretty mixed bag. He engaged in a lot of funny accounting, papering over budget shortfalls with short-term fixes and doing little to reduce the state’s huge long-term budget deficit.

9:38 PM

Cruz and Trump benefit from their feud. They’ve gotten four and three questions respectively in the first half-hour of the debate, while everyone else had one.

9:38 PM

Trump is right that it’s not just Laurence Tribe questioning Cruz’s eligibility. Mary Brigid McManamon also questions it — and she wrote a law-review paper about it back in 2014, over a year before Trump entered the race and started questioning Cruz’s eligibility.

9:37 PM

Trump’s response to the Nikki Haley question was the most concise elevator pitch he’s given for his campaign so far.

9:37 PM

“I’m not going to be taking legal advice from Donald Trump.” See serious/parody letter from Camp Jeb! here. Trump appears to have lost control of the crowd tonight.

9:35 PM

Typical of Trump to start his response about Cruz’s eligibility by talking about his polling numbers. The crowd booed at his mention of a recent poll co-sponsored by The Wall Street Journal and NBC, to which Trump replied, “They don’t like The Wall Street Journal. They don’t like NBC. But I like the poll.” Trump decides which polls he likes — and tweets — based on how he does in them, not who conducted them.

9:34 PM

Trump’s been pretty ineffective, but I’m also wondering who picked this crowd, which doesn’t seem to like him one bit.

9:32 PM

Definitely Cruz. He knew this was coming, he polished his response, and stacking this right after the question about his loans allowed him to lump Trump in with the mainstream folks attacking him — the one accusation Trump wants to avoid.

9:31 PM

Cruz. He’s by far the better debater. He turned it on Trump, created the straw man of a more extreme view of eligibility to run for president, and then managed to look above it all.

9:31 PM

Who’s getting the best of this Trump vs. Cruz kerfuffle?

9:31 PM

A: Jay, I think it will be difficult for Carson to continue with any strength if he finishes fourth or worse in Iowa. If he does drop out, the polling isn’t entirely clear who his backers would get behind. Polls from Iowa indicate that his backers tend to be more religious and tend to vote for candidates who shares their values. That looks like the profile of a Ted Cruz voter more than a Donald Trump voter.

9:28 PM

Fox Business cut to a commercial break right after Cruz answered a question about the story in the Times on his failure to disclose in an FEC filing that Goldman Sachs loaned him around a million dollars to fund his Senate campaign. Cruz took the tack of going after the Times and calling its reporting a “hit piece,” but since he’s the front-runner, I’m guessing he’s going to be getting some pushback about this, definitely from Trump, but maybe from others, since he’s trying to say it was just a paperwork error on his part.

9:27 PM

I don’t think Cruz’s response on the Goldman Sachs question was all that compelling. But still: Cruz was pretty clever in invoking a New York Times op-ed column to impugn the credibility of one of its news articles. What percentage of Americans know that The New York Times (and other major newspapers) make a big deal about the firewall between their newsrooms and their editorial pages? Two percent?

9:20 PM

Sounds like Marco Rubio just read Rich Lowry’s column about how his sunny disposition has not really been an advantage in the GOP primary.

9:18 PM

The Fox Business moderator is right: Stocks are off to a truly awful start so far this year — the worst ever, in fact. Most of that, though, is due to turmoil in China. There isn’t much any president could do about that, at least in the short term.

casselman-sandp
9:13 PM

A: I think there’s got to be at least a couple of people who are going to do some reassessments after New Hampshire, i.e., the people like, say, Christie, who don’t have field operations that extend much beyond that state (that would be assuming he doesn’t do as well as he hopes). Or maybe Fiorina peaces out. There could be some pressure from party actors saying that people need to coalesce behind one person or another and funnel those super PAC dollars toward the most viable establishment candidate.

9:12 PM

Ted Cruz says that “the lowest percentage of Americans are working today of any year since 1977.” That isn’t quite right. As of December, 59.5 percent of American adults were working. That’s way down from the late 1990s, but it’s up about a percentage point from two years ago. Cruz may have meant to refer to the labor force participation rate, the share of Americans who are working or actively looking for work. That measure ticked up in December but is still near a three-decade low.

9:11 PM

Ted Cruz decided to start off the debate by talking about the American soldiers taken captive by Iran. Christie just brought it up too. That’s a smart strategy. Polls indicate that terrorism has become a top issue among Americans. Not only that, but Cruz attacked President Obama in his answer, and Obama has an approval rating of 10 percent among Republicans.

9:10 PM

A: Judging by what we’ve seen here in Iowa, the Republican campaigns don’t seem to think the ground game matters very much. (Not that some aren’t a little better than others.) In this, they’re probably mistaken.

9:09 PM

Let’s see if anyone follows Carly Fiorina’s lead earlier tonight in the ad hominem remark. In the undercard debate, Fiorina made a pointed — and to many, tasteless — comment that “Unlike another woman in this race, I actually love spending time with my husband.” Bill Clinton’s impeachment for lying under oath followed the Monica Lewinsky sexual revelations. Comments like this are crass. (The term “below the belt” was the first phrase that popped to mind.) But they also come at a time when America is grappling with what makes for a healthy relationship. The research on marital happiness includes studies on what social scientists call consensual non-monogamy, or (CNM).

CNM is one term used to describe relationships where one or more people have sex outside the marriage, but have an agreement that this does not violate the bounds of the relationship. An article in the Journal für Psychologie stated, “Our recent studies with United States samples have demonstrated that approximately 4% to 5% of people are currently involved in CNM relationships.” It also breaks down the numbers by gender and sexual orientation.

I have no idea what Secretary and President Clinton do or don’t have as an agreement. It’s not my business. But Fiorina’s words should be taken not only as a crass attention-getter, but also a moment to assess how our social norms do and don’t conform with our lived behavior.

9:08 PM

How much do the debates affect the polls? According to a Wall Street Journal analysis, they do give candidates who perform well a boost — with the exception of Donald Trump, whose polling numbers seem to move independently from his (generally lackluster) debate performances. Bettors at PredictIt think Marco Rubio and Ted Cruz are more likely to get bumps tonight than Trump is.

9:08 PM

Seems like a fairly pro-establishment crowd based on the initial volume of applause for the candidates.

9:00 PM
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8:59 PM

A: It’s make-or-break for EVERYONE, in the sense that nobody (not even Trump) can feel all that secure about their position in the race, and that we’re now close enough to the voting that what might otherwise be a short-term blip in the polls could carry into Iowa and New Hampshire and therefore have lasting effects.

8:58 PM

I’ll be watching to see if Trump goes after Cruz’s eligibility, and if anyone joins him or takes Cruz’s defense.

8:57 PM

Maybe it seems obvious, but I’m looking for the direction of incoming fire. Is everyone still ganging up on Rubio? Do people other than Bush and Kasich finally attack Trump? Is Cruz getting the scrutiny from other candidates that an Iowa front-runner normally would? That’s going to set the tone for a lot of the tactics we’ll see over the next few weeks.

8:57 PM

I’m watching for who goes after Trump, Micah.

8:56 PM

What’s everyone watching for tonight?

8:55 PM
Even A Strong Economy Leaves Opportunities For Republicans

In his State of the Union address Tuesday night, President Obama said the U.S. has “the strongest, most durable economy in the world.” Bet on hearing a very different description of the U.S. economy on stage tonight. During the “undercard” debate earlier this evening, Republican candidates hammered Obama over falling male employment rates, lost manufacturing jobs and the shrinking middle class.

Obama’s boast wasn’t wrong. At a time when economies around the world are in or near recessions, the U.S. has been a beacon of strength. We’re in the midst of the longest stretch of job growth in history, and despite some severe stock-market jitters to start the new year, most experts still see the American economy as being on firm footing.

But Republicans aren’t necessarily wrong in their criticisms either. The middle class really is shrinking; incomes really are stagnant; and inequality really has grown. Many of those trends predate Obama’s tenure, and some, such as the decline in manufacturing employment, have at least partly reversed in recent years. But whether or not Obama caused the problems, it’s fair to say he hasn’t solved them.

The delicate balance for tonight’s candidates is that past Republican presidents didn’t solve those problems either. That’s an especially big challenge for establishment candidates such as Marco Rubio, John Kasich and, especially, Jeb Bush, whose brother was in office when the last recession began. But while Obama (and the eventual Democratic nominee) can brag about falling unemployment and steady growth, the economy gives Republicans plenty of openings too.

8:54 PM
The State Of The Race In New Hampshire

The race in New Hampshire is even more muddled than the one in Iowa, though Trump does clearly lead. If you look only at New Hampshire polls, Trump has a 57 percent chance of winning there, with a closely grouped second tier of Rubio, Cruz, Kasich, Christie and Bush — all between a 5 percent and 15 percent chance of winning. Our forecast that factors in endorsements and national polls boosts Rubio and drops Trump, though Trump is still leading with a 39 percent chance of winning.

Here’s the polls-plus forecast and FiveThirtyEight polling average (check out the polls-only forecast here):

The top candidates' chances of winning the N.H. Republican caucuses
Poll results and weighted averages for the N.H. Republican caucuses
8:51 PM
The State Of The Race In Iowa

Going into tonight’s debate, the race in Iowa remains fairly unsettled according to the FiveThirtyEight forecasts.

The race seems to be between Ted Cruz, Donald Trump and, to a lesser extent, Marco Rubio. Our polls-only forecast, which looks only at state polls, has Cruz and Trump basically even, with Rubio well back. Our polls-plus forecast, which incorporates endorsements and national polls, has Cruz ahead of Trump, and both Rubio and Cruz doing better than in the polls-only forecast because they have more endorsements than Trump. The polls-plus model also projects Cruz to do better in Iowa because he is outperforming his national numbers there, historically a sign that a candidate will also outperform his or her state polls.

Here’s the polls-plus forecast and FiveThirtyEight polling average (check out the polls-only forecast here):

The top candidates' chances of winning the Iowa Republican caucuses
Poll results and weighted averages for the Iowa Republican caucuses
8:50 PM

If you don’t have cable — or your package doesn’t include Fox Business — never fear: The network is streaming the debate. The big show starts in about 10 minutes.

8:42 PM
The Republican's five-ring circus
8:35 PM
Trump continues to dominate both news coverage and online searches
8:31 PM

And here’s how popular tonight’s main-stage debaters are with GOP elected officials:

The Endorsement Primary
8:26 PM

Here’s how popular tonight’s main-stage debaters are with Republican voters:

How popular are the Republican contenders?
8:20 PM
Welcome

We’ve been in Iowa all week, talking to voters, candidates and campaign staff, and hoping to refine our read of the 2016 Republican primary. And yet, the race seems more muddled than ever. We haven’t found any definitive answers in the Hawkeye State.

The polls show Donald Trump closing in on Ted Cruz, but it remains to be seen whether The Donald’s campaign can convert the high level of interest in Trump into votes — there are signs pointing both ways. Speaking of Cruz: He may not be the favorite in Iowa any longer, it depends on whether you’re a glass-half-full or glass-half-empty kind of person. And Marco Rubio is still hanging around — a distant third in Iowa and a distant second in New Hampshire.

This is all a long way of saying that with the GOP race in such disarray, tonight’s debate could set the terms for the final three weeks before Iowa. Will Cruz go after Trump for his birther-based concern trolling? (By the way, Trump’s ability to dictate the news cycle has been … impressive.) Can Rubio, Chris Christie, Jeb Bush or John Kasich put together a moment tonight that helps them break through in New Hampshire?

Watch it all unfold with us; if you have a question or comment, leave it here or tweet us @FiveThirtyEight.

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