Republican candidates gear up for fifth debate

Anti-Muslim rhetoric has sent Trump’s campaign to new highs after terror attacks

Republican candidates gather in Nevada on Tuesday night for the party's fifth presidential debate and the first since the California terror attack that has sent Donald Trump's candidacy to new highs in the polls.

The most anticipated debate of the Republican race so far will be dominated by the issues of terrorism and security, the two main concerns of the American public in the wake of the attacks by Islamic State militants in Paris and the Islamic State-inspired attack in San Bernardino.

It is the first opportunity for the nine top-polling candidates out of a Republican field of 13 to address the most inflammatory proposal of Trump’s campaign: his plan to bar Muslim immigrants from entering the US.

Tapping in to the anxieties of a jittery public, Trump’s hard-hitting campaign and Islamophobic proposals have given him his biggest lead yet.


A national Washington Post-ABC News poll on the eve of the debate found that the property tycoon had scored 38 per cent support among Republican and Republican-leaning independents.

His closest rival, Texas Senator Ted Cruz, who has taken an equally aggressive anti-Muslim stance by proposing to accept only Christian refugees from Syria, rose to 15 per cent, double his support last month.

On Monday, a Monmouth University poll displayed a similar pattern, finding Trump's lead among Republicans at 41 per cent, an increase of a whopping 13 percentage points since mid-October.

That poll put Cruz second on 14 per cent.

However, his frontrunner status in Iowa, the first nominating state, is at risk.

The race is far tighter in the state, which holds the first caucuses on February 1st.

The latest Quinnipiac University poll of likely Republican voters put the two leading candidates in a statistical dead heat, with Trump at 28 per cent and Cruz at 27 per cent.

That came days after a Des Moines Register/Bloomberg poll put Cruz at 31 per cent, 10 points clear of Trump on 21 per cent.

Campaign rally

At a campaign rally in a Las Vegas hotel on the eve of the debate, Trump held up his strong national poll numbers and blamed a “dishonest” media for focusing on Cruz’s rise in Iowa.

An ebullient Trump defended his rhetoric and radical proposals, hailing his own courage to raise concerns about illegal immigrants when nobody else was willing to state them.

“This country needs to get away from political correctness - it is absolutely killing us,” he said, to cheers from a highly-charged crowd.

The reality TV star entertained the crowd by referring to Hillary Clinton's pantsuits, claims about his "phony hair" and the fact that he does not eat Oreo biscuits any more after their US manufacturer decided to move to Mexico.

Trump told his audience at the Westgate Resort and Casino that he expected to be targeted by the other candidates at the debate, but warned that those who attacked him had “gone right down the tubes”.

“I think it is going to be a very big night,” he said.

“They’re all coming after me. This will not be an evening in paradise for me.”

There were some ugly scenes and scuffles at the rally as gun control campaigners and anti-Trump protesters interrupted his speech several times.

Some chanted: “Dump Trump! Dump Trump!”

Trump’s supporters drowned them out and reacted aggressively to Ender Austin, a Black Lives Matter protester, as security guards attempted to remove him from the ballroom.

The Republican candidate’s supporters could be heard yelling: “Shoot him!”, “Kick his a**!”, and “’Light the motherf**ker on fire!”

“Bye bye!” said the business magnate, as the protester was physically removed and escorted from the ballroom by security staff.

Trump supporters

Supporters said they liked that Trump was not a politician, had his own wealth and was not reliant on outside contributors.

They also said that he had a successful business record that he could replicate in public office.

Cathy Pulido (56), who works for a scientific games company in Las Vegas, said that she wants “more of the same” from Trump in the debate.

“He is just blowing everybody away,” she said.

“He is being very honest. He is saying things that people are afraid to say.”

“Trump’s our guy,” said another supporter, Ron Costa (53), leaving the rally.

“He just speaks like he’s your buddy. He says the things that you know to be true.”

Hassan Mahmood, a Muslim teenager from Galway working in Las Vegas before he starts university at home, attended the rally to see first-hand how Trump had convinced people to support him on such divisive proposals and how he was justifying them.

“I want to see how people accept this. He says stuff like this and people cheer for him. I want to see why they do that,” he said.

Simon Carswell

Simon Carswell

Simon Carswell is The Irish Times’s Public Affairs Editor and former Washington correspondent