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GOP primary heats up as 2016 nears

GOP candidates have been getting into the holiday spirit this month with an increasingly contentious campaign featuring more open conflict between rivals.

Republican candidates have been getting into the holiday spirit this month with an increasingly contentious campaign featuring more open conflict between rivals and an ugly turn by the front-runner toward phony news that reinforces ethnic stereotypes. 

With the first votes set for Feb. 1, the comforting thought that trailing candidates have relied on for months – “It’s early!” – is rapidly losing its magic. As a result, expect more aggressive efforts from the candidates to differentiate themselves from each other, more high-profile efforts to shore up weak spots, and some desperate moves from losing candidates to close out the year strong. The holiday season tends to turn voters' attention away from campaign news and towards Christmas shopping and New Years partying -- an effect that makes it even more difficult for any candidate to break out until January. 

RELATED: Trump’s turn toward racially charged fiction challenges the GOP

Here are some of the simmering conflicts over the last few days that are likely to carry into 2016.  

Trump vs. facts 

The biggest story over Thanksgiving week was Trump’s ongoing war with the press over, among other fantastical racially charged claims, his contention that “thousands” of Muslim residents of Jersey City, New Jersey, celebrated the 9/11 attacks. All credible evidence so far suggests this event, which Trump claims he witnessed personally on television, never happened. But Trump, who was challenged to back up his claims on "Meet The Press" Sunday, has continued to insist he has his own sources. 

Trump tried to soften his image with African-Americans after tweeting inaccurate racial crime statistics and suggesting a Black Lives Matter protester deserved to be beaten at one of his rallies, but it ran into similar factual problems. After announcing a press conference featuring endorsements from 100 black pastors, participants complained to the press that they had only agreed to a meeting and did not support Trump. “Probably some of the Black Lives Matter folks called them up and said, 'Oh, you shouldn't be meeting with Trump because he believes that all lives matter,'" Trump said on MSNBC’s "Morning Joe" Monday ahead of the meeting. His campaign closed the event to the media. 

Ted Cruz vs. Marco Rubio 

Cruz and Rubio are clashing frequently these days as each senator vies to consolidate a broad pool of conservative voters looking for a more traditional alternative to Trump and Dr. Ben Carson.

A super PAC supporting Rubio is running ads accusing Cruz of weakening national security by voting for the USA Freedom Act, which reformed the NSA’s bulk collection of phone data. "I think Sen. Rubio's campaign is very, very dismayed at conservatives coming together behind our campaign and is attempting to mislead voters in an effort to slow that down," Cruz said in response on Saturday.

RELATED: How Ted Cruz could win the GOP nomination

Cruz, for his part, has tried to go after Rubio for co-authoring the 2013 “Gang of Eight” immigration reform bill that would have granted a path to citizenship for undocumented immigrants. Cruz has called Rubio’s plan (which Rubio has since renounced) “amnesty,” but has not ruled out a more limited path to legal status for immigrants at some point.

The longshots vs. New Hampshire

There’s been a lot of action recently between some of the lower polling candidates who are staking their hopes on New Hampshire. Donald Trump is king there in the polls, but there’s plenty of competition lately between candidates positioning themselves as the sensible alternative in a state with an open primary that has backed centrist candidates in the past. This was supposed to be Jeb Bush’s lane, but he’s so far failed to consolidate it.

New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie is still quiet in the polls, but his image has improved since Bridgegate. He earned some important endorsements this week in New Hampshire, prompting Trump to accuse him of spending too much time away from New Jersey. The biggest prize for Christie this week was the backing of the New Hampshire Union Leader, the state’s most prominent newspaper. 

Ohio Gov. John Kasich has tried to make his campaign about taking down Trump. A new web ad from Kasich on Monday jutxaposed Trump’s recent mockery of a disabled New York Times reporter (Trump denies he knew of the reporter’s condition) and images of former presidents George Washington, Abraham Lincoln, Teddy Roosevelt, Dwight Eisenhower and Ronald Reagan. Last week Kasich went even further with a web video in which a former POW paraphrased Martin Niemöller’s famous quotation about the rise of Nazism in Germany and applied it to Trump.

The GOP vs. Planned Parenthood

One story over the holiday threatening to cloud the race is the deadly attack at a Planned Parenthood in Colorado Springs, Colo. Police have not named a motive, but the suspected shooter, Robert Lewis Dear, reportedly told officers “no more baby parts” after being taken into custody.

RELATED: Carly Fiorina says it's fair game to criticize Planned Parenthood

Numerous Republican candidates have criticized Planned Parenthood over hidden-camera footage by an anti-abortion group showing officials discussing reimbursement for donating fetal remains to medical research. Payments are legal as long as they’re not for-profit and the group claims the videos are misleading. Some reproductive rights activists have accused Republicans of overheated rhetoric in the months leading up to the attacks. Carly Fiorina, who claimed in a debate to have seen an apparently nonexistent video of Planned Parenthood workers keeping an aborted fetus alive "to harvest its brain," came under special criticism, which she dismissed as "left wing tactics."

Democrats quickly denounced the violent spree, but Republican candidates were silent at first, a reflection of the political lightning storm surrounding the story. Cruz, who decried the attack on Twitter, was an exception, but he also suggested that the shooter might be a “transgendered leftist activist” rather than a pro-life zealot based on a conservative blog who reported that a voter registration record listed Dear’s gender as female. With Dear alive and in custody, expect the story to continue to loom over the abortion debate. 

Ben Carson vs. foreign policy

Carson briefly overtook Trump in national polls, but surveys have shown his support dropping in Iowa and elsewhere as Cruz rises with social conservatives.

One possible culprit for Carson’s decline: foreign policy. The retired neurosurgeon has shown little grasp of international affairs and The New York Times even quoted a Carson adviser complaining about his lack of interest. With terrorism and national security issues in the spotlight after the Paris attacks, Carson’s deficiencies could cause greater problems down the line. 

Carson is aware he needs to shore up his credentials. Last week, he took a surprise trip to Jordan to visit refugees who have fled Syria’s civil war. In a Facebook post and interview with "Meet The Press," Carson said he concluded that refugees were better housed in Middle Eastern states like Jordan with America’s help and pledged to release a more detailed plan soon.