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National Q-Poll: Trump 27, Rubio 17, Carson 16, Cruz 16

Quinnipiac's latest national presidential poll shows Donald Trump still leading the GOP field, holding steady in the mid-to-high 20's. But the real action comes among the other three top-tier candidates: Ben Carson, who was virtually tied with Trump in last month's survey, has shed seven net points since then (dropping from 23 to 16 percent). Carson now shares third place with Ted Cruz, who's gained three points 
over his November performance. Marco Rubio has also enjoyed a three-point bump, surging into second place, at 17 percent support. No other candidate in the Republican race comes close to cracking into double-digits, with deep-pocketed establishment titan Jeb Bush wheezing along at just five percent. With only two months to go until actual vote casting commences, the 'strength of support' factor will begin to loom large. Everyone chasing Trump might eagerly cite the data point showing that fully two-thirds of Republicans surveyed say they could change their minds between now and primary election day.  But guess whose backers are by far the most locked in?

It stands to reason: People who will gladly countenance egregious smearsmean-spirited mockerypersonal venomoutright liesconspiratorial associatespolicy incoherencelack of knowledgeridiculous bravadodelusional self-assessments, and a pathological inability to admit fault or error aren't likely to be dissuaded by, well, anything. Meanwhile, Team Rubio must be pleased with their guy's steady climb into second place, but his support is softest among the top echelon of candidates:


On the other hand, Rubio consistently polls at or near the top of the GOP field on the important measure of personal favorability (+58 among Republicans, +9 among voters overall), and once again performs strongest against Hillary Clinton in a hypothetical head-to-head. Serious upside.  Though this survey isn't as ugly for Mrs. Clinton as Quinnipiac's last offering, she's still struggling on key fundamentals:  Her favorability rating is (-7), her honesty rating is (-24), and her empathy rating is (-5).  The only major candidate whose numbers are as bad or worse on these fronts is...Donald Trump, whose general favorability registers dead last among all candidates from both parties at (-22), tied with the hapless Jeb Bush. Incidentally, Trump also leads among Republicans in the "would never support" category, followed by Bush. So while Trump's hardcore supporters may be impervious to his unseemly schtick, most voters aren't nearly as immune. Two big questions: (1) What explains Carson's sharp drop between November and December? (2) Might the much-discussed Rubio/Cruz slugfest ultimately determine the nomination if Carson fades, and Trump somehow flames out?  The answer to the first question, I think, is Paris.  With terrorist threats suddenly at the forefront of voters' minds, they're less inclined to back someone whose knowledge and experience in the national security and foreign policy realm is 
obviously limited, sometimes painfully so.  Carson himself has basically acknowledged as much, jetting off to the Middle East to do some homework. Americans will determine whether or not his efforts are too little, too late.

The second question is intriguing, if still premature.  Rubio and Cruz have been blasting each other on immigration for weeks now; as I wrote late last month, Cruz's line of attack against Rubio's judgment and priorities on the issue have been complicated by the Texan's continued dodging on the question of whether he supports a path to legal status for millions of illegal immigrants -- a stance he's embraced in the recent past.  This feud has now bubbled over into other policy arenas, including national security.  Rubio has slammed Cruz for voting in favor of a compromise bill on surveillance reforms (alongside several respected Republicans), arguing that the Texas Senator voted "with Obama" to weaken the US government's intelligence-gathering capabilities.  Some in the intelligence community agree with Rubio, as does Donald Trump, interestingly.  Rand Paul also opposed the Cruz-supported bill, but for the opposite reason; it wasn't sufficiently protective of Americans' civil liberties, in his estimation.  Tired of Rubio the aggressor, Cruz threw a new roundhouse in this fight earlier in the week, savaging Rubio for supporting the Obama/Clinton Libya intervention.  Note the term "neocons" as a pejorative:

Senator Rubio emphatically supported Hillary Clinton in toppling [Muammar] Qaddafi in Libya. I think that made no sense,” Cruz told Bloomberg Politics in a wide-ranging and exclusive interview during a campaign swing through Iowa. He argued that the 2011 bombings that toppled the Libyan leader didn’t help the fight against terrorists. “Qaddafi was a bad man, he had a horrible human rights record. And yet … he had become a significant ally in fighting radical Islamic terrorism.”... “The terrorist attack that occurred in Benghazi was a direct result of that massive foreign policy blunder,” Cruz said during a drive eastward from a town-hall event near Iowa City to another in the town of Clinton…“If you look at President Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton and for that matter some of the more aggressive Washington neo-cons, they have consistently mis-perceived the threat of radical Islamic terrorism and have advocated military adventurism that has had the effect of benefiting radical Islamic terrorists,” he said.

Allahpundit's analysis is spot on:  Cruz is a hawk at heart (see: his comments about totally destroying ISIS), but he's shrewdly seeking to blaze a "third way" trail between the Rubio and Paul camps.  I'm not a Paulian non-interventionist/isolationist because strong American leadership is vital to global and national security, he's signaling to voters, but I don't share
Rubio's penchant for reflexive military adventurism.  I suspect Rubio will put points on the board over the surveillance vote because his audience an anxious and hawkish Republican base (he'll alienate the not-insubstantial libertarian fraction of the party in the process), while Cruz may draw blood on the Libya misadventure (though suggesting that Rubio shares some culpability for Benghazi is a bridge too far).  Rubio will retort that Cruz is missing the point, and that a President Rubio would have handled things far differently, thus averting the negligent Smart Power crew's dangerous debacle.  Fair enough, but Rubio pressed for American intervention knowing full well who occupied the Oval Office at the time, didn't he?  If Cruz's appetite for a philosophical fight is limited on this front, he could fairly easily pivot back to the issue of Rubio's judgment, just as he will on immigration.  I'll leave you with a headline Rubio's campaign has been understandably blasting far and wide for days:

This was a major blow to Obamacare, and a policy accomplishment of which Rubio should be proud.  It also contains a potent political subtext: Ted Cruz led a failed push to defund Obamacare, resulting in an unpopular government shutdown.  I actually managed to damage
this terrible law in a meaningful way.  Do you want principled showboating, or conservative results?  To which Cruz might reply, if my plan was such a failure, why did you vote with me?  This ain't over, folks.  If Rubio and Cruz's polling trends maintain their upward trajectory over the coming weeks, buckle up for an epic battle between these two young, smart, conservative senators.  Parting thought: We already know how Trump attacks Rubio (he's a disloyal, "weak baby" who sweats too much).  How will Trump target Cruz when the former inevitably realizes the latter is a major threat and 'goes to war'?

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