Trump at center stage, but Cruz in spotlight at GOP debate

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WASHINGTON (AP) — Donald Trump will be standing at center stage, but Ted Cruz will be in the spotlight at Tuesday night's Republican presidential debate.

SEE MORE: As Cruz rises in presidential polls, Trump calls him 'maniac'

The Texas senator is challenging Trump's lead in the kickoff Iowa caucuses, and he has the money, campaign infrastructure and conservative appeal to compete deep into the GOP primary season. Those assets now make him a target for his rivals, most notably Trump and Florida Sen. Marco Rubio.

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Ted Cruz on the campaign trail
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Trump at center stage, but Cruz in spotlight at GOP debate
STAFFORD-MARCH 1: Ted Cruz holds his victory rally at the Redneck Country Club in Stafford, Texas. On the left is his wife, Heidi and their two daughters and on the right is the Lt. Governor of Texas, Dan Patrick. (Photo by Lucian Perkins /for The Washington Post via Getty Images)
Senator Ted Cruz, a Republican from Texas and 2016 presidential candidate, stands on stage during a Super Tuesday night event in Houston, Texas, U.S., on Tuesday, March 1, 2016. Cruz said Monday in Dallas that Super Tuesday will make the Republican primary a 'two-man race,' predicting that he and Donald Trump will finish far ahead of rivals Marco Rubio, John Kasich and Ben Carson in terms of delegates. Photographer: Matthew Busch/Bloomberg via Getty Images
Senator Ted Cruz, a Republican from Texas and 2016 presidential candidate, greets attendees with his wife Heidi Cruz and children during a campaign event in San Antonio, Texas, U.S., on Monday, Feb. 29, 2016. Cruz said Monday in Dallas that Super Tuesday will make the Republican primary a 'two-man race,' predicting that he and Donald Trump will finish far ahead of rivals Marco Rubio, John Kasich and Ben Carson in terms of delegates. Photographer: Matthew Busch/Bloomberg via Getty Images *** Local Captions *** Ted Cruz; Heidi Cruz
US Republican presidential hopeful Sen. Ted Cruz speaks at a presidential campaign rally in Dallas, Texas on February 29, 2016 one day before the 'Super Tuesday' primaries. Americans in a dozen states head to the polls for a slew of primaries and caucuses March 1 on what is considered the most important day of the presidential nominations calendar. / AFP / Laura Buckman (Photo credit should read LAURA BUCKMAN/AFP/Getty Images)
UNITED STATES - FEBRUARY 27: Presidential candidate Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, arrives for a campaign rally near the Georgia State Capitol Building in Atlanta, Ga., February 27, 2016. (Photo By Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call)
HOUSTON, TX - FEBRUARY 24: Republican presidential candidate U.S. Sen Ted Cruz (R-TX) greets people during a campaign rally at the Mach Industrial Group on February 24, 2016 in Houston, Texas. The process to select the next Democratic and Republican Presidential candidates continues. (Photo by Joe Raedle/Getty Images)
AMES, IA - JANUARY 30: Republican presidential candidate Sen. Ted Cruz (R-TX) arrives at a campaign event at the Gateway Hotel on January 30, 2016 in Ames, Iowa. The Democratic and Republican Iowa Caucuses, the first step in nominating a presidential candidate from each party, will take place on February 1. (Photo by Brendan Hoffman/Getty Images)
DES MOINES, IA - JANUARY 31: Republican presidential candidate Sen. Ted Cruz (R-TX) speaks to Iowa voters at the Iowa State Fairgrounds January 31, 2016 in Des Moines, Iowa. The U.S. presidential election kicks off tomorrow with the state's caucuses. (Photo by Win McNamee/Getty Images)
HAMLIN, IA - JANUARY 30: Republican presidential candidate Sen. Ted Cruz (R-TX) speaks at a campaign event at Darrell's Place on January 30, 2016 in Hamlin, Iowa. The Democratic and Republican Iowa Caucuses, the first step in nominating a presidential candidate from each party, will take place on February 1. (Photo by Brendan Hoffman/Getty Images)
HAMLIN, IA - JANUARY 30: Republican presidential candidate Sen. Ted Cruz (R-TX) (C) greets an audience member as he is introduced at a campaign event at Darrell's Place on January 30, 2016 in Hamlin, Iowa. The Democratic and Republican Iowa Caucuses, the first step in nominating a presidential candidate from each party, will take place on February 1. (Photo by Brendan Hoffman/Getty Images)
Republican presidential candidate, Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas speaks during a campaign stop at the Freedom Country Store, Tuesday, Jan. 19, 2016, in Freedom, N.H. (AP Photo/John Minchillo)
Republican presidential candidate, Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, departs a campaign stop, Monday, Jan. 18, 2016, in Washington, N.H. (AP Photo/Matt Rourke)
Shown is Republican presidential candidate, Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, shadow as he speaks during a campaign stop Wednesday, Jan. 20, 2016, in Hollis, N.H. (AP Photo/Matt Rourke)
Delaney Anne tries to make a selfie with Republican presidential candidate, Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, during a campaign stop, Monday, Jan. 18, 2016, in Tilton, N.H. (AP Photo/Matt Rourke)
Republican Presidential candidate Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, campaigns at Penny's Diner in Missouri Valley, Iowa, Monday, Jan. 4, 2016. (AP Photo/Nati Harnik)
LAS VEGAS, NV - DECEMBER 17: Republican presidential candidate Sen. Ted Cruz (R-TX) speaks during a campaign rally at the Siena Community Center on December 17, 2015 in Las Vegas, Nevada. Two days after participating in the fifth GOP presidential debate, Cruz began a swing through eight Super Tuesday states in five days. (Photo by Ethan Miller/Getty Images)
Republican presidential candidate Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, speaks during a town hall meeting at Furman University on Monday, Dec. 7, 2015, in Greenville, S.C. (AP Photo/Rainier Ehrhardt)
Republican presidential candidate Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, speaks Saturday, Dec. 5, 2015, during the Rising Tide Summit at the US Cellular Center in Cedar Rapids, Iowa. (AP Photo/Scott Morgan)
Republican presidential candidate Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas speaks to supporters on the Statehouse steps in Concord, N.H., Thursday, Nov. 12, 2015, after filing papers to be on the nation's earliest presidential primary ballot. (AP Photo/Jim Cole)
WASHINGTON, DC - DECEMBER 03: Republican presidential candidate Sen. Ted Cruz (R-TX) leads a moment of silence for victims of the San Bernardino shooting prior to his address to the Republican Jewish Coalition at Ronald Reagan Building and International Trade Center December 3, 2015 in Washington, DC. Candidates spoke and took questions from Jewish leaders and activists. (Photo by Alex Wong/Getty Images)
Republican presidential candidate Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, shops for jewelry from ChildVoice International with his daughters Catherine, left, and Caroline during a campaign stop at the Deerfield Fair Friday, Oct. 2, 2015, in Deerfield, N.H. ChildVoice International is a non-profit organization seeking to restore the voices of children silenced by war.(AP Photo/Jim Cole)
Republican Presidential candidate Donald Trump, right, speaks with fellow Republican presidential candidate Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, during a rally opposing the Iran nuclear deal outside the Capitol in Washington, Wednesday, Sept. 9, 2015. (AP Photo/Susan Walsh)
Senator Ted Cruz, a Republican from Texas and 2016 presidential candidate, speaks during a Tea Party Patriots rally against the Iran nuclear deal on Capitol Hill in Washington, D.C., U.S., on Wednesday, Sept. 9, 2015. A revolt among U.S. House Republicans delayed action on the Iran nuclear deal today as some members insisted they aren't bound by a Sept. 17 deadline in their efforts to kill the agreement. Photographer: Andrew Harrer/Bloomberg via Getty Images
Republican presidential candidate Texas Sen. Ted Cruz, center, right, posses for a photo with Timothy Lewis after a campaign event at the Stockyards in Forth Worth, Texas, Thursday, Sept. 3, 2015. (AP Photo/LM Otero)
Photographed through attendees, Republican presidential candidate, Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, speaks at the Americans for Prosperity Road to Reform event Friday, Aug. 14, 2015, in Las Vegas. (AP Photo/John Locher)
DES MOINES, IA - AUGUST 21: Republican presidential candidate Sen. Ted Cruz (R-TX) speaks to supporters at his Religious Liberty Rally on August 21, 2015 in Des Moines, Iowa. Earlier in the day Republican presidential candidate Sen. Ted Cruz (R-TX) visited and spoke to guests at the Iowa State Fair. (Photo by Scott Olson/Getty Images)
Senator Ted Cruz, a Republican from Texas and 2016 presidential candidate, speaks at the Iowa State Fair Soapbox in Des Moines, Iowa, U.S., on Friday, Aug. 21, 2015. A day after Jimmy Carter appeared on national television to talk about the cancer that's ravaging his body, Cruz criticized the former president's administration in a speech in Iowa. Photographer: Daniel Acker/Bloomberg via Getty Images
Senator Ted Cruz, a Republican from Texas and 2016 presidential candidate, eats a pork chop at the Iowa Pork Producers tent during the Iowa State Fair in Des Moines, Iowa, U.S., on Friday, Aug. 21, 2015. A day after Jimmy Carter appeared on national television to talk about the cancer that's ravaging his body, Cruz criticized the former president's administration in a speech in Iowa. Photographer: Daniel Acker/Bloomberg via Getty Images
Senator Ted Cruz, a Republican from Texas and 2016 presidential candidate, speaks at the Rally for Religious Liberty in Des Moines, Iowa, U.S., on Friday, Aug. 21, 2015. A day after Jimmy Carter appeared on national television to talk about the cancer that's ravaging his body, Republican presidential candidate Cruz criticized the former president's administration in a speech in Iowa. Photographer: Daniel Acker/Bloomberg via Getty Images
UNITED STATES - AUGUST 8: Presidential candidate Sen. Ted Cruz (R-TX) spends a few moments with his daughter Catherine before the start of the Cruz bus tour rally in a field behind Sprayberry's BBQ in Newnan, Ga., on Saturday, Aug. 8, 2015. (Photo By Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call)
Texas Senator Ted Cruz participates in the Republican presidential primary debate on August 6, 2015 at the Quicken Loans Arena in Cleveland, Ohio. AFP PHOTO / MANDEL NGAN (Photo credit should read MANDEL NGAN/AFP/Getty Images)
UNITED STATES - JULY 29: Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, awaits for the elevator doors to close as he arrives in the basement of the Capitol, July 29, 2015. (Photo By Al Drago/CQ Roll Call)
WASHINGTON, DC - JULY 28: Republican presidential candidate, U.S. Sen. Ted Cruz (R-TX) speaks during a Anti-abortion rally opposing federal funding for Planned Parenthood in front of the U.S. Capitol July 28, 2015 in Washington, DC. Sen. Rand Paul (R-KY) announced a Senate deal to vote on legislation to defund Planned Parenthood before the Senate goes into recess in August. (Photo by Olivier Douliery/Getty Images)
Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, speaks to reporters following a rare Sunday Senate session on Capitol Hill in Washington, Sunday, July 26, 2015. Senior Senate Republicans lined up Sunday to rebuke Cruz for attacking Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, an extraordinary display of intraparty division played out live on the Senate floor. (AP Photo/Manuel Balce Ceneta)
WASHINGTON, USA - JULY 23: Republican Presidential Candidate Senator Ted Cruz speaks out against the nuclear deal with Iran during a demonstration that was interrupted by counter protestors in Lafayette Park across the the street from the White House in Washington, DC on July 23, 2015. (Photo by Samuel Corum/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images)
Senator Ted Cruz, a Republican from Texas and 2016 U.S. presidential candidate, speaks during The Family Leadership Summit in Ames, Iowa, U.S., on Saturday, July 18, 2015. The sponsor, The FAMiLY LEADER, is a 'pro-family, pro-marriage, pro-life organization which champions the principle that God is the ultimate leader of the family.' Photographer: Daniel Acker/Bloomberg via Getty Images
AMES, IA - JULY 18: Republican presidential hopeful Senator Ted Cruz of Texas fields questions at The Family Leadership Summit at Stephens Auditorium on July 18, 2015 in Ames, Iowa. According to the organizers the purpose of The Family Leadership Summit is to inspire, motivate, and educate conservatives. (Photo by Scott Olson/Getty Images)
Senator Ted Cruz, a Republican from Texas and 2016 presidential candidate, stands outside while waiting to speak during the Faith and Freedom Coalition's 'Road to Majority' legislative luncheon in Washington, D.C., U.S., on Thursday, June 18, 2015. The annual Faith & Freedom Coalition Policy Conference gives top-tier presidential contenders as well as long shots a chance to compete for the large evangelical Christian base in the crowded Republican primary contest. Photographer: Andrew Harrer/Bloomberg via Getty Images
WASHINGTON, DC - JUNE 04: Sen. Ted Cruz (R-TX) participates in a Judiciary Subcommittee hearing on the Affordable Care Act on Capitol Hill June 4, 2015 in Washington, DC. The hearing is billed as 'Rewriting The Law, Examining the Process That Led to the ObamaCare Subsidy Rule'. (Photo by Mark Wilson/Getty Images)
Senator Ted Cruz, a Republican from Texas and 2016 presidential candidate, speaks during a press conference at the Hampton Inn and Suites in Seneca, South Carolina, U.S., on Wednesday, Feb. 17, 2016. Cruz says Donald Trump sent his lawyers cease and desist letters over a Cruz campaign ad that portrays Trump as pro-choice saying that if the Cruz campaign doesn't pull ad, they'll see immediate legal action to prevent the continued broadcast of this ad, according to Cruz. Photographer: Daniel Acker/Bloomberg via Getty Images
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Trump and Cruz have getting along for months, and that has protected the senator from the harsh criticism the businessman has flung against other opponents. But signs of a split have emerged in recent days, with Cruz appearing to question Trump's judgment at a private fundraiser, according to audio obtained by The New York Times, and Trump calling Cruz "a little bit of a maniac."

"Looks like @tedcruz is getting ready to attack," Trump wrote on Twitter last week. "I am leading by so much he must. I hope so, he will fall like all others. Will be easy!"

Another intriguing dynamic in Tuesday's prime-time debate in Las Vegas involves Cruz and Rubio. Both are first-term senators and Cuban Americans who see themselves as alternatives to Trump, who has baffled Republican leaders with his political durability.

Cruz and Rubio have been sparring from afar for weeks, particularly over national security, which is now a top campaign issue following the attacks in Paris and San Bernardino, California. Rubio has tried to brand Cruz as an isolationist and has criticized his support for ending the bulk collection of Americans' phone records, saying it weakens the government's ability to identify potential terrorists.

More broadly, Rubio's campaign is eager to cast Cruz, who prides himself on being a conservative "truth-teller," as a politically expedient flip-flopper who is willing to say whatever is necessary to win an election. Rubio's campaign has raised questions about the consistency of Cruz's positions on sending troops to the Middle East, as well as his ambiguousness on whether he would allow immigrants living in the U.S. illegally to stay in the country.

SEE MORE: CNN: Christie returns to main GOP presidential debate stage

Cruz's campaign has dismissed Rubio's criticism, with spokesman Rick Tyler saying, "Nobody believes Senator Cruz is weak on national defense and security."

Tuesday's debate will be the first for Republicans in more than a month, and also the first since the attacks in Paris and California. The four previous GOP debates had record viewership, giving the candidates an unparalleled platform to reach voters.

With just six weeks until voting begins, the broad contours of the race remain consistent. Trump still sits atop the GOP field, displaying a talent for connecting with voters frustrated with Washington and on edge about the threat of terrorism. He continues to make controversial comments that might disqualify more traditional candidates, including his recent call for a ban on Muslims entering the U.S.

More experienced politicians are still struggling to break through in the crowded field. Some party leaders fear that unless the party's establishment wing quickly rallies around one candidate, the nomination could go to Trump or Cruz — candidates they see as all but unelectable in a contest with Democratic front-runner Hillary Clinton.

Still, there have been some signs of movement in early voting states since Republicans last took the debate stage.

SEE MORE: Senator Cruz introduces bill to let states reject refugees

Cruz's rise in Iowa has been accompanied by a precipitous decline for Ben Carson, the retired neurosurgeon who has struggled with inexperience on national security matters. New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie is enjoying increasing support in New Hampshire, which helped him regain his spot on the main debate stage after being downgraded in November.

"I've been making executive decisions for 13 years and been held accountable for them," Christie said in an interview with The Associated Press. "There's no other way to get ready for the presidency than that; you have to have executive experience to be successful."

Also on the main stage Tuesday night will be Florida Gov. Jeb Bush, former business executive Carly Fiorina, Ohio Gov. John Kasich and Kentucky Sen. Rand Paul. Four lower-polling candidates will appear at an earlier event: former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee, former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum, former New York Gov. George Pataki and South Carolina Sen. Lindsey Graham.

For struggling candidates, the debates will be one of their last opportunities to change the trajectory of their campaigns before voting begins in Iowa Feb. 1. The stakes are particularly high for Bush, who was once seen as a front-runner for the Republican nomination and has raised more money than any other candidate.

Bush has scoffed at suggestions that he should drop out of the race before voting begins. But that idea is likely to build if he delivers another lackluster debate performance.

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AP writer Scott Bauer in Madison, Wisconsin, and Kathleen Ronayne in Wolfeboro, New Hampshire, contributed.

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