The Note: The Stage Is Set In Vegas

ByMICHAEL FALCONE
December 14, 2015, 8:44 AM

— -- NOTABLES

--GOP CANDIDATES GATHER IN SIN CITY: Nine candidates will be on the main stage for the last Republican presidential debate of 2015, CNN announced over the weekend. Donald Trump, Ted Cruz, Ben Carson, Marco Rubio, Chris Christie, Jeb Bush, Carly Fiorina, John Kasich, and Rand Paul will all be taking part in the main debate tomorrow in Las Vegas. As the frontrunner, Trump still occupies the podium in the center of the stage. But this time, ABC's ALANA ABRAMSON notes, he will be flanked by Cruz as well as Carson. http://abcn.ws/1J5fMxW

--THE RISE OF CRUZ: Two polls released Sunday show Ted Cruz continuing to gain momentum in the 2016 GOP presidential primary, running neck-and-neck with Donald Trump in Iowa and inching up on the real estate mogul nationally. Trump has a slight lead in the NBC/Wall Street Journal poll of Republican primary voters released yesterday. According to that poll, he has 27 percent support nationally, while Cruz has 22 percent. But in Iowa, recent polls have found Cruz either neck-and-neck with Trump or leading, ABC's ALANA ABRAMSON reports. A Fox News poll in Iowa of likely Republican caucus-goers released today shows Cruz with 28 percent, followed by Trump with 26 percent. This is within the poll's margin of error, essentially putting the two in a dead heat for frontrunner status. http://abcn.ws/1Z6z0fG

--TRUMP PLAYING DEFENSE IN IOWA: Since Donald Trump and his helicopter descended on the Iowa State Fair back in August, the billionaire businessman has been the steady front-runner in Iowa, surviving attacks from fellow candidates, controversial proposals and a short-lived burst in two polls from Dr. Ben Carson. Now, seven weeks away from the Iowa caucus, Trump is fending off his biggest threat yet from Cruz, the co-front-runner in the state after four polls released in the past week show his surge, ABC's JOSH HASKELL reports from Des Moines. "I think Cruz is the front-runner in Iowa and the reason is he's always been a natural fit of the caucus-goers," Iowa Republican strategist Craig Robinson told ABC News. "He's a true conservative and doesn't have a lot of competition within his own lane. There's Rick Santorum and Mike Huckabee, but they're not even on the main debate stage and I think that matters to voters." http://abcn.ws/1m0OZgY

--ANALYSIS -- ABC's RICK KLEIN: It just might be that Ted Cruz -- yes, Ted Cruz -- is the man who will save the Republican Party from itself. Cruz's polling lead in Iowa suggests a consolidation of evangelical support in the state that's crowned Mike Huckabee and Rick Santorum in the past two cycles. Most critically for this election, a Cruz win in Iowa would mean a Donald Trump loss. It's become quite typical for a Republican to lose Iowa and win the nomination anyway. But Trump, of course, is not a typical candidate, and early glimpses of what he's likely to act like if he starts losing have been...entertaining. (Who remembers the belt buckle incident?) Already, after stray Cruz comments on Trump emerged in leaked audio, Trump is questioning Cruz's "judgment" and "temperament," and said that in the Senate, "he goes in frankly like a bit of a maniac." Trump's previous fights with fellow candidates have been based on the assumption that he will win any name-calling fight. If Cruz resists the urge to return fire, it will be Trump caught off-script on the eve of the first voting of the cycle.

TODAY ON THE TRAIL with ABC's SHUSHANNAH WALSHE: Donald Trump will be in Las Vegas tonight for a rally. Marco Rubio holds one in Sin City too, but later this afternoon. Mike Huckabee is also already in Nevada. This morning he stops in Fallon and this afternoon he holds a meet and greet in Reno. Rand Paul is in Los Angeles and will hold a media avail this afternoon. Carly Fiorina is off the trail, but will hold a conference call/webcast tonight on Planned Parenthood and limiting abortion rights. The call is hosted by the Susan B. Anthony List and Priests for Life. On the other side of the aisle, Hillary Clinton speaks at the National Immigrant Integration Conference. Bernie Sanders is in New Hampshire. He meets with students this afternoon in Nashua and stops in Hollis in the early evening.

EXCLUSIVE -- FRED KARGER-RUN SUPER PAC HITS HUCKABEE: Truth Squad 2016, a super PAC that opposes former Gov. Mike Huckabee's presidential candidacy, is taking its first major swing at the former Arkansas governor today in a new video, the man behind the group told ABC's BEN GITTLESON. Titled, "Pardon," the spot portrays Huckabee behind his gubernatorial desk in Arkansas in 2000, commuting the sentence of Maurice Clemmons, a prisoner who went on to gun down four police officers. The cartoon Huckabee acts only when he learns Clemmons "has recently found the Lord" (the video can be viewed online). Fred Karger, a 2012 presidential candidate and LGBT activist, runs Truth Squad 2016 and told ABC News that a 30-second version will run on television in Las Vegas 19 times today through Wednesday, on CNN and Fox News, timed in concert with Tuesday's GOP debate. Karger, who declined to say how much money was behind the buy, has tried to make Huckabee's clemency grants as governor of Arkansas a sticking point for the GOP candidate.

--HUCKABEE CAMP WEIGHS IN: In response, a spokesman for Huckabee, Hogan Gidley, told ABC News: "Trying to convince voters that a southern republican governor who's carried out 16 executions is somehow soft on crime is as absurd as this cartoon. It's a despicable untrue political smear against the Governor and a truly disgusting political exploitation of grieving families."

THE BUZZ

with ABC's VERONICA STRACQUALURSI and PAOLA CHAVEZ

THE ANATOMY OF DONALD TRUMP'S SOUTH CAROLINA SUPPORTERS: FED UP AND FEARFUL. Meet John Wood. He lives in Aiken, South Carolina and says Americans should be scared about who is coming into the country and that's why he's for voting for Donald Trump. "I know I'm afraid," said Wood who was laid off from his construction job in 2011 and has since settled into retirement. "We need to know who these people are, and I don't think there should be able to just come into this country illegally and shoot up people." In a series of interviews conducted at Trump's town hall last weekend in South Carolina, many supporters of the billionaire real estate mogul expressed outright fear -- and others a general unease -- about the security of the United States. ABC's JORDYN PHELPS has more. http://abcn.ws/1jY0V1A

CRUZ CAMPAIGN LAUNCHES STAR WARS CONTEST FOR APP USERS. Ted Cruz has publicly spoken of his love of "Star Wars," calling Han Solo the "coolest character in all of cinema." With the newest installment of the franchise arriving this weekend, the Cruz campaign hopes to spread the senator's love of the films to some lucky supporters, ABC's JESSICA HOPPER notes. Users of the Ted Cruz 2016 mobile phone app began receiving a notification over the weekend alerting them to a contest where those who earn the most points on the app between now and Dec. 15 will get tickets to see "Star Wars: The Force Awakens" on opening weekend. http://abcn.ws/1J64qtC

BEN CARSON 'OUT OF HERE' IF REPUBLICAN LEADERS ENGAGE IN BACKROOM DEALS. Ben Carson doubled down Sunday on his threat to leave the party if GOP leaders try to manipulate the nomination process with "back room deals." Carson said yesterday on ABC's "This Week" he entered the race because he heard from voters who were frustrated by "back room deals of subterfuge and dishonesty." He said he would be "out of here" if those types of deals remained, ABC's KATHERINE FAULDERS reports. http://abcn.ws/1NqqTDv

MARCO RUBIO: 'I WILL NEVER PIT YOU AGAINST OTHER AMERICANS.' As the Republican primaries draw near, Sen. Marco Rubio seems ready to position himself as more of a general election candidate, speaking Saturday at a rally in Greenville, South Carolina, about the need for the next president to unite all Americans, regardless of their party affiliation. "If I'm honored with the chance to be president, I will never pit you against other Americans," he said at Furman University in response to a question about how he might re-instill "trust and integrity" to the office of the president. ABC's INES DE LA CUETARA has more. http://abcn.ws/1O2M448

TRUMP TAKES SWIPE AT CRUZ'S CUBAN ROOTS, TIES TO OIL. Donald Trump took aim at Ted Cruz during a town hall in Iowa Friday night, saying he was beholden to big oil and taking a swipe at his Cuban roots in what he termed a "two person race" for the state. "Not a lot of Evangelicals come out of Cuba in all fairness," Trump told the crowd in an apparent shot Cruz's heritage. After securing key endorsements within the Iowa evangelical Christian community, Cruz's support continues to grow, surpassing Trump in the Monmouth University Poll released Monday of likely Caucus-Goers, according to ABC's JOHN SANTUCCI and JOSH HASKELL. http://abcn.ws/1RfwCSy

JOHN KERRY: DONALD TRUMP'S COMMENTS ON MUSLIMS 'ENDANGER NATIONAL SECURITY.' Secretary of State John Kerry says Donald Trump's comments proposing to ban Muslims from entering the United States "endanger national security." "It exhibits an attitude by one American who is running for the highest office of our land about a willingness to discriminate against a religion," Kerry said in an interview on "This Week." The secretary of state also criticized the Republican frontrunner's statement for going "against our constitution," ABC's NICKI ROSSOLL writes. http://abcn.ws/1YcNbgY

IN THE NOTE'S INBOX

PRO-KASICH GROUP COMPARES TRUMP TO HIPPOPOTAMUS: New Day for America, a super PAC that supports Ohio Gov. John Kasich, this morning labeled Donald Trump a "Hippo-Crit" in a new television ad it said will start airing on New Hampshire television today, ABC's BEN GITTLESON reports. The ad makes liberal use of hippopotamus bellows as it calls Trump a hypocrite for reportedly making products in China and using undocumented workers to build a hotel in Washington. Meanwhile, the Kasich campaign is out with a web video today that calls Trump's proposals and behavior unconstitutional, using children to narrate the faux constitutional lesson.

WHO'S TWEETING?

@CARLYforAmerica: Recently we hosted a roundtable discussion with veterans to learn more about the issues facing the VA http://bit.ly/VetsRoundTable-WE ... #Carly2016

@seanspicer: Exclusive: Conservative Group Calls for Federal Inquiry Into @HillaryClinton Son-in-Law @TIMEPolitics http://time.com/4147115/hillary-clinton-emails-marc-mezvinsky/?xid=tcoshare ...

@AaronBlakeWP: Rand Paul caught a big break in making the CNN debate. He probably shouldn't have. http://wpo.st/RSzw0

@nationaljournal: Did Marco Rubio's donors fund a book that put $800,000 into Rubio's pocket? http://njour.nl/s/125957

@TheBrodyFile: .@TheBrodyFile analysis: The Path Ahead For @realDonaldTrump and @tedcruz http://blogs.cbn.com/thebrodyfile/archive/2015/12/13/the-path-ahead-for-donald-trump-and-ted-cruz.aspx ... #CBNNews #GOP #2016 #GOPdebate

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