Takeaways From The GOP Debate
Cruz wins a round, Rubio fades, Christie lives to fight another day.
If you like a good heavyweight donnybrook, this was the best debate to date: The two GOP fighters with the sturdiest jaws and nastiest hooks — Donald Trump and Ted Cruz — finally went at each other after months of faux-friendship shadow boxing.
And the Tea Party Texan more than held his own – and had enough left to absorb a few stray blows from Marco Rubio.
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The referees basically took the night off. To say that the first debate of 2016, held in deep-red South Carolina and sponsored by the FOX Business Network, featured the lightest questioning yet was an understatement. There will be no post-debate whining about rough, unfair grilling this time around: Over and over, moderator Maria Bartiromo offered “thank you” instead of posing follow-up questions to filibustering candidates.
The sixth Republican debate might have been the most consequential: It comes less than three weeks before the critical Feb. 1 Iowa caucuses, a time when many voters make up their minds – or switch their preferences. Here are five takeaways.
1. Cruz out-bullies Trump. In the most significant (and electrifying) exchange between any two GOP candidates this cycle, Cruz easily parried Trump’s bully-boy attacks and lacerated the Republican frontrunner like a Harvard debate team senior hazing a stuttering frosh. When the Texas senator was asked to address Trump’s newfound skepticism about his legal standing to run for president, Cruz ripped Trump for stoking claims that Cruz’s Canadian birth certificate makes him ineligible for the nation’s highest office: “You know, back in September, my friend Donald said that he had had his lawyers look at this from every which way, and there was no issue there,” he said, referring to his birth in Canada. “There was nothing to this birther issue … Now, since September, the Constitution hasn’t changed.”
Then, a remarkable admission from Trump – who conceded his friendly-fire attack on his onetime political buddy was entirely motivated by political self-preservation. When moderator Neil Cavuto asked, “Why are you saying this now — right now? Why are you raising this issue now?” he shot back, with: “Because now he’s going a little bit better [in Iowa polls]. No, I didn’t care… Hey look, he never had a chance. Now, he’s doing better. He’s got probably a four or five percent chance [now].”
And Cruz turned the tables on Trump as no other foil has ever done: Forcing the usually steely businessman to offer a heartfelt defense of his hometown – and its sacrifices on 9/11 – when the transplanted Texan attacked his “New York values.” Trump offered an eloquent defense, but it threw him off offense.
2. Marco Rubio: Hey guys, don’t forget about me! As recently as six weeks ago, the boyish Florida senator was poised to challenge Trump at the top – as a bona fide conservative with significant crossover appeal to independents and hawkish Democrats in a general election. But his campaign — predicated on the notion of hanging in mid-pack to let the frontrunners savage each other – hasn’t worked, and he’s remained stubbornly second-tier. Now he’s prey – with the other candidates (Chris Christie, Ted Cruz, et al.) scheming to steal his 10 percent grip on the primary electorate.
But this time around, there was a sense of urgency (bordering on the frantic) in Rubio’s fast-talking, policy-crammed debate-stage performance – like a boy, pocket change in hand, chasing an ice cream truck that’s racing past his street. His innate rhetorical talent may not overcome his lack of political audacity, but he always acquits himself well: His pinpoint attack on Cruz’s flip-flops in the Senate, late Thursday night hit home: “You used to support the doubling of the green cards, now you are against it… you used to say you were in favor of birthright citizenship, now you say you are against,” he intoned – forcing an otherwise attack-mode Cruz on the defensive.
3. Ben Carson surgically removed himself from contention. The man who once had an unshakeable hold on second place in the primaries — and the most outsidery outsider in the 2016 campaign – has slipped so far outside he can’t be seen or heard anymore. With his campaign in disarray and his Iowa backers bleeding into the Cruz camp, the neurosurgeon-turned-tea-party-prophet needed a strong night. Instead he seemed even more anesthetized than usual: His most stirring moment came when he called the moderators out for denying him the requisite mic time.
When they called Carson out for speaking out of turn, he invoked each candidate’s right to hold forth when someone mentioned their name; It turned out no one had actually said the word “Carson” – but somebody had blurted out “everybody” which was good enough for him.
4. Jeb Bush was the only one speaking the real language of the presidency. The former Florida governor, the best-funded bust in modern political history, continues to ennoble himself as he slides toward what seems like inevitable defeat. With his own prospects dimming, Bush has found his voice as an onstage reality check for a field – especially his despised tormentor, the “jerk” Trump – which trucks in bombast, vagary and unsupported promises.
When Trump blasted China – a populist no-brainer for core GOP voters – and promised to impose tariffs to combat Beijing trade manipulation, Bush responded with a fact-based (and politically unappealing) counter-argument: “There will be retaliation,” he said, relating the nearly-unanimous opinion of policy makers on both sides of the aisle that Beijing would strike back with equally painful sanctions. He even pointed out that soybean production in Iowa would be devastated by a retaliatory Chinese boycott.
“You need someone with a steady hand,” Bush said to Trump.
He was right – no president could realistically impose the policy — and he was supported by Cruz in that assertion.
But Trump won the exchange with a face-punch, not boring talk of real-world governance: “We don’t need weakness,” he said, to the usual guffaws and applause.
5. Chris Christie is cruising. The combative Jersey governor has slipped a bit in the New Hampshire polls (and he needs to finish strong in the first-in-the-nation primary to keep his long-shot campaign going) but he was on top of his roughneck game Thursday night. He was a battering ram on defense policy – the most effective of the field in making the case for a more forceful projection of military power. “If you’re worried about the world being on fire, you’re worried about how we’re going to use our military, you’re worried about strengthening our military and you’re worried most of all about keeping your homes and your families safe and secure, you cannot give Hillary Clinton a third term of Barack Obama’s leadership,” he said. “I will not do that. If I’m the nominee, she won’t get within 10 miles of the White House.”
He was far less sure-footed when it came to outlining the conditions necessary to put American troops in harm’s way – but the partisan audience in Charleston was far more eager for a show of rhetorical strength than a discussion of the limits of American military power.
One of the biggest applause lines came during the first answer of the night when Cruz blew past a question about the economy to deliver a chest-thumping response to the brief detention of ten American sailors by the Iranian military earlier this week. “I give you my word, if I am elected president, no service man or service woman will be forced to be on their knees, and any nation that captures our fighting men will feel the full force and fury of the United States of America,” he said to thunderous applause.