The Republican Party picked the Venetian, a Las Vegas casino modelled on a sinking city, as the venue for its fifth presidential debate.
Gamblers kept gambling at the nearby slots and gondoliers kept rowing in the hotel’s indoor canals, seemingly oblivious to the Republican cage match that took top billing on Tuesday night.
Nine candidates (out of a field of 13) tussled on the main stage, but only one took a gamble of swinging at the pugnacious front-runner Donald Trump, whom the party establishment fears will sink its hopes of regaining the White House with his inflammatory remarks and divisive proposals.
An average of 18 million viewers tuned in to the CNN-televised debate, making it the third most-watched primary debate ever (after the first two Republican debates in August and September), attesting to Trump’s star-pulling power.
Former Florida governor Jeb Bush, whose lacklustre candidacy has left him trailing in fifth place, clocked his best debate performance in testy exchanges with the abrasive businessman. The man hoping to be the third president from his family was the voice of moderation to Trump's extremism, saying the United States had to win over allies in the Middle East to beat Islamic State jihadists, not bar Muslims from entering the US as Trump has proposed.
A more assertive Bush questioned Trump’s credibility as a serious candidate in a debate dominated by national security and terrorism.
The candidates met for the first time since the attacks in Paris and San Bernardino and against polls showing Americans at their most fearful of terrorism since 9/11. Tensions were heightened by a hoax email threat on Tuesday that closed the Los Angeles school system.
Bush scored his biggest hit on Trump, calling him “a chaos candidate” who would be “a chaos president”.
It got under Trump’s skin. The reality TV star resorted to throwing insults, demanding an apology and complaining about questions being framed to spur attacks on him. “You’re not going to be able to insult your way to the presidency,” Bush responded to applause.
Trump defended his wild positions again, from the killing of terrorists’ families to closing “areas” of the internet to block recruitment by jihadis: “I sure as hell don’t want to let people that want to kill us and kill our nation use our internet.”
In challenging Trump, Bush stepped into a gap left in the debate by Texas senator Ted Cruz, who, like the tycoon, has energised angry, white conservative voters. In the prevailing climate of fear, Cruz, a favourite of the Tea Party right, has doubled his support with proposals as radical as Trump's and challenged the businessman's lead in Iowa, the conservative, first-nominating state.
Cruz’s anticipated attack on Trump didn’t materialise, as the two leading candidates continued their bromance. “Everyone understands why Donald has suggested what he has,” said Cruz, refusing to bash his Islamophobic proposal.
Just days after accusing Cruz of acting like "a maniac" in the Senate, Trump struck a more conciliatory tone. "I've gotten to know him over the last three or four days. He's just fine," he said, slapping the shoulder of his rival next to him.
Cruz reserved his attacks for Florida senator Marco Rubio, who is polling nationally third behind him and is a direct competitor for the conservative vote that is so influential in the early-voting states.
He atttacked Rubio for supporting a 2013 comprehensive immigration Bill, which will play well with the Republican right, accusing him of standing with Democrats on a “massive amnesty plan”.
Rubio didn’t enjoy a standout performance as he has in previous debates but he showed himself a knowledgeable and capable debater and a candidate who is likely to continue increasing his support.
The two men also clashed on government surveillance and military spending in a policy- heavy bout that New Jersey governor
took advantage of, bolstering his recent gains in the second-nominating state of
. He ridiculed the wonkishness of their disagreements over the minutiae of congressional Bills, comparing it with his consequential decision-making as the executive of a state.
"If your eyes are glazing over like mine, this is what it's like to be on the floor of the United States Senate," he said, delivering a zinger that will appeal to the many voters angry with Washington politics.
Ben Carson, the retired neurosurgeon, showed why his poll numbers have been falling. He appeared out of his depth and out of place addressing a question about ordering military strikes on civilians by pointing to his experience of telling children they have cancer.
The debate had no outright winners or losers. Bush’s attack on Trump might be too little, too late to revive his flagging campaign and the tycoon did little to disappoint his supporters. The party will be relieved at Trump pledging again not to run as an independent if he fails to secure the nomination.
With no knock-out punches in a still packed cage, the last Republican debate of 2015 – coming just seven weeks before the first nominations in the Iowa caucuses – settled nothing.