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November 2015

As the calendar turns to November, campaigns seem to drop like flies. After not getting invited to participate in a late October CNBC undercard debate, Lindsey Graham, Bobby Jindal and George Pataki band together and threaten to drop out if debate formats aren't made fairer. They appeal to the Republican National Committee to force FOX Business' hand, and call for two 1.5 hour-long debates with half the candidates randomly picked to be in one debate and the rest in the other.

But their bluff is called, no changes are made and the three candidates awkwardly exit the race back-to-back-to-back on Nov. 10, 11 and 12. The field suddenly narrows to 11 candidates. CNN announces that its mid-December debate will have all 11 candidates share one stage — even former Va. Gov. Jim Gilmore, who often isn't even included in polls.

After outsider candidate Ben Carson surges to a 10 percentage point lead in early October, establishment Republicans get scared off their bench to start declaring their support. A string of gaffes from the first-time campaigner leaves them doubting Carson's ability to compete in a general election. In a particularly face-palm inducing moment at a New Hampshire campaign event, Carson mispronounces the host town "Goffstown" as "Gaffe-stown."

With Jeb Bush still leading the so-called "Establishment Lane" of the primary, major party politicians and donors figure Bush is their best bet and begin to hitch their cart to the Bush horse. Sen. Kelly Ayotte, R-N.H., endorses Bush in November and starts to campaign with him in New Hampshire, fueling running mate rumors.

After two positive debate performances in a row, Bush gets about 25 percent in national Republican primary polls as of Nov. 10. Cruz takes second, boosted by his efforts in the Senate to end sanctuary cities. Carson and Fiorina remain at 10 percent but are fading fast. Rubio has 12 percent, with everyone else under 10 percent. Cruz and Bush have 10 percentage point leads in Iowa and New Hampshire, respectively.

Nov. 13, 2015 — Paris

When 130 people are killed, and 368 more injured, in the Paris terrorist attacks there is an immediate backlash against refugees in the presidential campaign. Within days, Marco Rubio calls for an immediate ban on refugees from Syria, while Ted Cruz expands his proposed ban to the entire Middle East (except Israel).

Jeb Bush says Syrian refugees who can prove they're Christian should still be welcomed. While liberal pundits mock all the candidates for the proposed ban, Bush gets targeted most for seeming to suggest that a religious test should be applied to refugees. "Calling for a refugee ban is an overreaction," the New York Times editorial board writes, "but Bush's religious test is blatantly unconstitutional and Islamophobic."

Nov. 19, 2015 — Ames, Iowa

Eight of the remaining candidates are invited to a Fox News town hall event, co-hosted with the Des Moines Register. The event takes place at the Hilton Coliseum on Iowa State University's campus, with nearly 8,000 attendees from across the state.

In a much-criticized twist, Fox News announces that Donald Trump will join moderator Megyn Kelly and ask at least one question to each of the candidates. Despite his decision not to run, Trump's presence has hung over the GOP primary since he promised to give "yuge" sums of money to whichever candidate he endorses. Diehard Trump fans continue to call on him to enter the race, as an independent if not as a Republican.

When his plane arrives in Iowa, about 100 people are gathered, holding signs that say "Make America Great Again!" "Draft Donald" and "Trump Train." Trump signs autographs and takes pictures in view of Fox News cameras before leaving. Afterward, a few attendees admit to a local reporter they only attended because a Craigslist ad promised them Pizza Ranch gift cards if they showed up.

December 2, 2015 — San Bernardino, Calif.

The world is rocked by terror for the second time in three weeks when 14 people are killed and 22 more seriously injured by terrorists in San Bernardino, Calif. It's soon revealed that both attackers were Muslims: One was born in Pakistan but lived most of her life in Saudi Arabia. The other was born in Chicago but to parents who immigrated from Pakistan.

In his regular weekly phone interview with Fox and Friends, Donald Trump calls for "a total and complete shutdown of Muslims entering the United States until our country's representatives can figure out what is going on."

Jeb Bush, still feeling stung over a dispute with Trump during his Ames town hall interview, calls Trump's Muslim ban "divisive and unconstitutional."

Cruz refuses to comment on Trump's idea, but pushes his own solution: a three-year moratorium on refugees from countries where the Islamic State is active, such as Syria and Iraq.

Rubio simply attacks Trump and the media, saying Trump "didn't think that one through," and that the media shouldn't focus so much on comments made by "some guy that isn't even in the race."

Despite their differences, every GOP candidate basically agrees it's time to take more aggressive military action against the Islamic State.

January 2016

When the clock strikes midnight, it's officially election year. The race is fairly stable in January, save for the exit of Carly Fiorina. She had begun to make a name for herself with a series of viral videos, with topics ranging from empowering female Republicans to her love of puppies. But her online success didn't transfer into poll success, and the woman who once ran second in national polls drops out in mid-January after missing the 5 percent average national polling threshold for a January 10 FOX Business debate.

Days before the Iowa caucuses, polls are tight. Nationally, Cruz leads Bush by 5 percentage points. In Iowa, Bush, Cruz and Rand Paul are in a dead heat after Paul completes the "Full Grassley" in January alone, visiting all 99 Iowa counties. In New Hampshire, Bush has a 10-point lead over Rubio.

Polls are one thing, but actual results are another. With some concern over polling accuracy, especially with so many candidates, Americans are glued to their TVs on Feb. 1 as the clock strikes 7 p.m. central time and the Iowa caucuses begin.

Jason Russell is a commentary writer for the Washington Examiner.