Mano a mano.

Photographer: Pete Marovich/Bloomberg

Debate Preview: Now It's Trump Versus Cruz

Albert R. Hunt is a Bloomberg View columnist. He was the executive editor of Bloomberg News, before which he was a reporter, bureau chief and executive Washington editor at the Wall Street Journal.
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For the Republican establishment, the there’s only one good thing about the battle between Donald Trump and Ted Cruz for the party’s presidential nomination: There’s a chance they’ll destroy each other.

That prospect is behind the buzz over tonight's debate, in Las Vegas. That’s when we’ll see whether the two leading non-establishment candidates decide to go after each other in earnest.

QuickTake U.S. Elections

Trump is likely to attack; that’s what he does when he sees a threat. Over the weekend he took shots at Cruz for not getting along with colleagues ("I actually get along with people much better than he does") and raised questions about his religious bona fides ("not a lot of evangelicals come out of Cuba"). The Senator's father, a Cuban refugee, is an evangelical pastor.

The latest polls show Cruz dominating in Iowa among born-again Christians, the constituency that will play an influential role in nominating caucuses on Feb. 1. With 31 percent of those voters favoring Cruz in last week's Bloomberg/Des Moines Register poll, he led Trump by 10 percentage points.

Tonight Cruz is likely to brush off any assaults. More than any candidate, he has avoided criticizing Trump, calculating that he would inherit some of his rival’s support when the other outsider slips.

That’s purely a tactical choice. Privately, Cruz has bad things to say about Trump's judgment and he rarely shies from a fight. This, after all, is the man who accused his own leader, Senator Mitch McConnell of Kentucky, of telling a "lie."

Any warfare will have little to do with ideology. Cruz and Trump share hardline positions on topics from abortion to immigration to guns, while parting company on taxation. Insidegov.com rates Cruz as among the most conservative Republican candidates on a range of domestic and international issues, with Trump about average.

Still, Trump is more likely to see Cruz's persona and background as the most fruitful areas of vulnerability, especially the fact that Cruz has spent almost all of his career in government.

The 44-year-old Texan is used to weathering attacks. He's reviled by the left and by many in his own party. And he likes to return fire. Still, Trump's popularity among likely Republican primary voters makes him hard to take on. If Cruz decides to try, he's likely to focus on Trump's situational conservatism and mercurial temperament.

The Republican establishment, starting with congressional leaders, has proven powerless to influence the contest of outsiders. They hope a consensus mainstream candidate will emerge; none has so far.

So they debate which outsider would be worse. Those who say Cruz argue that Trump is a deal maker with few ideological convictions and thus would be the more flexible. The other side says that Cruz is a known quantity, a longtime Republican with government experience.

Some think Trump might help the party by bringing out new voters who would support other Republicans. Others fear he would hurt the party by alienating Latinos, Asians and others.

This all makes tonight's debate a more interesting spectacle.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

To contact the author of this story:
Albert R. Hunt at ahunt1@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor responsible for this story:
Jonathan Landman at jlandman4@bloomberg.net