GOP Presidential Candidates Gear Up For Debate In Charleston, S.C.
ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:
It's game time. Chris Christie's been saying that for a while now, and tonight, it is game time. The Republican presidential candidates will be on stage in South Carolina for their latest debate. The field's narrowed a bit since the last time. George Pataki and Lindsey Graham are gone. And the host of tonight's debate, the Fox Business Network, has invited just seven candidates to the main stage. Believe it or not, that's the fewest yet. NPR national political correspondent Mara Liasson is in Charleston and joins us now. Hi, Mara.
MARA LIASSON, BYLINE: Hi, Ari.
SHAPIRO: What's dynamic that you're watching for tonight?
LIASSON: Well, the dynamic I'm watching for tonight is whether or not there's going to be a big showdown between Donald Trump and Ted Cruz. Sometimes the candidates decide to pull their punches on the debate stage, but these two men have been battling furiously on the campaign trail. They're first and second in the polls, and they're practically tied in Iowa. And Trump has begun questioning whether Cruz is constitutionally qualified to be president. Is he a natural-born citizen?
Cruz was born in Canada. His mother was a U.S. citizen. His dad was born in Cuba. Of course, in true Trump fashion, he says he's not bringing this up. He's just hearing it from others, including Democrats.
LIASSON: But they're going to sue Cruz. Now, Cruz, who, at first, handled all the Trump attacks with humor so as not to alienate the Trump voters he really wants, has begun to push back harder. He said that Trump has New York values, and that is real dog whistle to his conservative evangelical supporters in Iowa.
SHAPIRO: There was a story about Cruz that popped up last night regarding loans to his 2012 Senate campaign in Texas. Tell us the story and whether you think it'll have an impact on the race.
LIASSON: Well, this is a low-interest loan that his wife got through her employer, Goldman Sachs - big Wall Street investment bank. And he failed to disclose it properly on his federal election commission form. He did disclose it on his personal financial forms. And this loan helped Cruz finance his Senate race.
SHAPIRO: One question I have is, if this New York Times story hurts him, will it be because he failed to disclose or because he got a big loan from Goldman Sachs while running against Wall Street and the big banks?
LIASSON: Who knows? I think that probably the Goldman Sachs part of the story is a little more controversial than just getting a loan. But the big question is, is it going to hurt him? One of the biggest applause lines in this Republican race has been attacks on the media. And I think Cruz can brush this one away, saying, see; The New York Times doesn't want me to be the nominee, so they ran this story today.
SHAPIRO: Apart from Trump and Cruz, the more establishment Republican candidates have had a hard time getting traction this year. What are you looking for from them?
LIASSON: Well, there's been a big battle in the establishment lately. The establishment wants to coalesce behind Marco Rubio. Every week, Rubio gets a new billionaire in his corner or a new congressional endorsement, but because he's taking so much incoming fire from Chris Christie and Jeb Bush, he hasn't been able to consolidate establishment support. So we'll see what happens in that lane tonight. Does Rubio push back at them, or does he see his real obstacle to the nomination as Ted Cruz because there's been a big Cruz-Rubio fight going on too?
SHAPIRO: Now, looking at the big picture, we're less than three weeks away from the Iowa caucuses. Do you get the sense that the Republican Party is coming around to the idea that Donald Trump could actually end up being the nominee?
LIASSON: Yes. I think some parts of the Republican establishment are coming around. One conservative commentator tweeted today that fear and loathing is turning into rationalization and resignation. And you do hear Republican voices saying, well, maybe he could beat Hillary Clinton. And when Donald Trump unleashed that barrage of attacks against Bill Clinton's sex scandals, he showed Republicans that he really could take on the Clintons.
Now, is this wishful thinking, or is it the Stockholm syndrome? We're not sure. On the other hand, the establishment can't stand Ted Cruz either, but many establishment figures prefer Cruz to Trump. The bottom line is, this is a party in turmoil. They're being pulled in two very different directions, and hopefully this primary will sort it out.
SHAPIRO: That's NPR's Mara Liasson covering tonight's Republican presidential debate in South Carolina. Thanks, Mara.
LIASSON: Thank you.