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Tonight marks the fifth time Republican candidates will face off on the debate stage, but it will be the first time they have met since the attacks in Paris and San Bernardino.
Political director Lisa Desjardins reports.
National security, it's now the dominant theme for 2016 in speech after speech.
DONALD TRUMP, Republican Presidential Candidate:
We don't feel safe anymore.
From one news conference to the next.
SEN. TED CRUZ, Republican Presidential Candidate:
We are, today, in a time of war.
Again and again in TV appearances.
SEN. MARCO RUBIO, Republican Presidential Candidate:
They're afraid of what they're reading in the press.
The attacks on Paris and San Bernardino have fueled the new urgency. A new NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll lists national security as the clear number one priority of all voters; 40 percent chose it. But the number was even greater for Republican voters; 58 percent said fighting terror should be government's top priority.
The candidates have been quick to react, and a campaign that was focused on outsiders is now highlighting the experience of some establishment candidates, putting those with less foreign policy background on their heels.
Former front-runner Ben Carson starting losing support after one of his advisers told The New York Times that the neurosurgeon has a weak grasp on foreign policy. Then today, Carson, trying to regain momentum, released a plan to protect America. But look at point number seven: a call to investigate the Council on American-Islamic Relations, known as CAIR, as a — quote — "supporter of terrorism."
The group, a leading advocate for American Muslims, fired back in a statement, calling Carson's remarks Islamophobia.
With Carson struggling, Senators Ted Cruz and Marco Rubio, more steeped in security policy, are gaining with conservatives. One sits on the Senate's Judiciary and Armed Services Committees, the other on the Foreign Relations and Intelligence panels. Now the two are turning their fire on each other.
Cruz, who's surging in the polls, has tried to cast Rubio as authoritarian.
SEN. TED CRUZ:
When it comes to foreign policy, he wants as much power in Washington as possible. And he has agreed with John McCain, and Lindsey Graham, and, for that matter, Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama, that we should keep sticking our nose in foreign entanglements where the results of their policies has made America less safe.
Rubio, in turn, has cast Cruz as bad for the military.
SEN. MARCO RUBIO:
Given the choice between neo-isolationism or the defense of our country, he's chosen neo-isolationism, whether it's weakening our intelligence-gathering capabilities, or voting against the defense bills, or voting against for a budget that substantially reduces our defense spending. Now, these are facts.
While they duke it out, New Jersey Governor Chris Christie is also on the rise, stressing his time as a federal prosecutor.
GOV. CHRIS CHRISTIE, Republican Presidential Candidate:
I was, you know, in charge of having to make many of those decisions in my office for seven years as U.S. attorney.
The new security focus, of course, also sparked Donald Trump's call to block Muslims from entering the country, and that prompted new criticism from some of his opponents, like Ohio Governor John Kasich.
GOV. JOHN KASICH, Republican Presidential Candidate:
Look, people don't buy this.
And former Florida Governor Jeb Bush.
JEB BUSH, Republican Presidential Candidate:
There's no evidence that he's serious about any policy proposal he's laid out.
So far, though, the national security debate has seemed to boost, not bruise, the Republican front-runner.
We have to get smart. We have to get tough. We have to be vigilant. We have to be vigilant. We have no choice.
Meanwhile, Democrats are trying not to let Republicans take ownership of the issue. In Minneapolis today, Hillary Clinton outlined her plan for fighting terrorism in the U.S.
HILLARY RODHAM CLINTON, Democratic Presidential Candidate:
The threat we face is daunting, but America has overcome big challenges many times before. Throughout our history, we have stared into the face of evil and refused to blink.
And, tellingly, all of the candidates running for president now stress they're running to be commander in chief as well.
For the PBS NewsHour, I'm Lisa Desjardins.
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