For the fifth time this cycle and the last of this calendar year, Republican presidential candidates will gather on stage, with millions watching on live TV, and grapple with the vexing question of the election: Just what the hell can they do about the remarkable persistence of Donald Trump?
Tuesday night's debate in Las Vegas is, in one main regard, no different than the past ones. Trump comes in demanding -- hell, strangle-holding -- all the attention, with an outlandish, nativist policy proposal, having once again galvanized his followers and tripped up the other campaigns.
But with the Iowa caucus now less than 50 days away, the stakes are far higher than when the field first gathered in early August in Cleveland; and the possibility of a Trump win is no longer quite so implausible.
And so, a sense of desperation underlines Tuesday night's affair, and a bit of shoulder-shrugging too. Campaigns remain confounded about how confront a candidate so willing to cast aside any moral compunctions that might briefly enter his thoughts, so eager to lash out viciously against any rival who dares gain some traction against him.
From this moment of doom, there are small rays of hope for other Republican candidates. While Trump has managed to survive -- and even thrive -- after making dozens of over-the-top pronouncements, he is not as perfectly positioned as he would like you to believe.
In fact, Tuesday night's debate could compound a potentially serious problem facing the billionaire. Trump is suddenly losing in the state that will get the first say on whether his frontrunner status is merely a passing diversion after all.
The three most recent public surveys of likely Iowa Republican caucus-goers all confirm that Trump is now trailing Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas) in the nation’s first voting state of Iowa -- including the highly respected Des Moines Register poll, which shows Cruz leading Trump by 10 points.
Suddenly, a second question is gaining relevance within the Republican primary -- a question that a psychiatrist with experience in treating Narcissistic Personality Disorder might be better equipped to answer than a political journalist would. How would Trump react if he meets a fate that he most dreads: becoming a loser?
A defeat in Iowa, after all, would directly challenge the myth that Trump has created about himself: that he is immune to failure.
Trump has already launched what will no doubt remain a concerted effort to knock Cruz off his new pedestal in Iowa -- a familiar tactic of throwing out into the ether a haphazard and explosive brew of character attacks and policy critiques that has worked for him in the past when launched against previous rivals. And Republican operatives expect him to continue the frontal attack during Tuesday night's debate -- if only because the concept of tactical restraint is a foreign one to Trump.
But Cruz is a different breed than the candidates whom Trump has mocked in the past -- whether it be Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.) for his hair, Gov. John Kasich (R-Ohio) for his poll numbers or former Gov. Jeb Bush (R-Fla.) for his energy.
The Texas Republican is a savvy politician. And thus far he has refused to take the bait, laughing off Trump’s predictable missives against him as he declines to trade insults with the man whose supporters he will eventually need in order to make a serious run at the nomination.
How Cruz’s strategy of trying to kill Trump with kindness translates on a debate stage in Las Vegas could very well determine the mad sprint to the Feb. 1 caucus. Already, the strategy has been well-suited in Iowa -- a state where nice people are the third-most plentiful crop, after corn and soybeans. Trump, who has spent much of his life fine-tuning the art of the insult, never seemed to be a particularly natural fit for the place.
A loss in Iowa could be sustainable for Trump, if he were to solidify his standing in New Hampshire. Though Cruz, Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) and New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie (R) have risen lately in the polls, all three still trail by significant margins there. Trump's tough-guy shtick -- his business acumen and secular bearing -- has been a particularly potent combination in that first-in-the-nation primary state.
Then again, Trump may well be unable to withstand the prospect of failure in Iowa without melting down first.