Now, that was a debate! A diminished field of Republicans gathered in Houston to continue the process of selecting a standard bearer to take the GOP to the general election and then to victory, hopefully. The most important take away from this debate is that Donald Trump has been bloodied. Please join me as we go through a few of the details.
The winner of this debate was clearly Marco Rubio, with Ted Cruz coming in next, and ending with Donald Trump. I don’t really consider Carson and Kasich a part of this race any more, but having said that, I think Kasich did fine, and I think that he’ll do well in upsetting Donald in Ohio. Carson was Carson: quiet, a bit whiny, but essentially irrelevant.
Before this debate, I had decided that Cruz had to do a few things to Donald Trump in order to preserve his candidacy. Trump’s a blunt instrument, and to appeal to his followers Cruz needed to out-smash him. What I thought he should do is hit Donald hard on the pro-life and immigration issue, get some good one-liners in (like “Donald, for a tough guy, you sure whine a lot!”), hit Trump on his white nationalist support, and his threats to the Cubs’ owners. Additionally, he needed to pursue Rubio on immigration and pin him down with a pledge to not grant amnesty, something that Marco would be loath to do as his money and establishment support seem devoted to this idea. I also thought that Cruz could appeal to people to google the facts if Trump or Rubio called “liar!” Some of these things happened, such as the appeal to internet fact-checking, but not like I expected. However, it was not altogether a bad outcome; in fact it was quite the opposite. What did happen is a colossal and almost tag-team effort of Rubio and Cruz hammering Trump. Rubio did more of the ridiculing attacks, embarrassing and rattling the Don. Cruz came at Trump, as Steve Deace put it, treating him like a “hostile witness.” At first I was disappointed that the first half’s good attacks came from Rubio and not Cruz, and I tweeted out the Rubio was “Christie-ing Trump,” and that’s when it occurred to me what happened to Christie. Before New Hampshire, Christie went after Rubio, and hurt him, but he didn’t help himself. Cruz most likely made a strategic decision to let Rubio be the snarky one and fight his battles for him, preserving an appearance of Presidential dignity. Only time will tell, but it is possible that Trump was hurt enough to lose supporters, but they may not go to Rubio. Cruz, the only candidate who’s truly against amnesty, might be a better fit for disgruntled Trump supporters. In the end, Cruz may have made a good decision in allowing Rubio to be his junk-yard dog.
Cruz pursued Trump as an expert lawyer, hounding him into a corner. He displayed Trump’s lack of knowledge on issue and policy, punctuated the Don’s consistent losses to Hillary in a potential match-up while contrasting with his own consistent wins, and pointed out that Trump as the nominee would take away the single greatest weapon that the GOP has against Hillary: her corruption. In fact Cruz had the best line of the night when, in response to a Trump attack, declared the he would never apologize for defending the Constitution and the Bill of Rights, a line that made Trump appear very small. Cruz made clear in many examples just how ill-prepared and ill-equipped Trump is to be President. Trump doesn’t know the law or the Constitution and he thinks he can just wing it like he does everything else. Tonight showcased exactly why Trump should not be the nominee, and I think America saw it. Additionally, Cruz landed some good punches on Rubio concerning immigration and Libya. He also seemed vindicated from the “liar, liar, pants on fire” attack, when a Telemundo reporter categorically called Rubio out on denying his stance on DACA in the previous debate, and also when Cruz cornered Trump on his prior statements and aspersions of Cruz’s character, demonstrating Trump’s difficulty with the truth and asserting that baseless accusations of lying are in themselves a lie. Donald didn’t really know what to do, and couldn’t make Cruz let up.
It was immensely fun to watch Rubio go to work on Trump. However, I think Cruz’s prosecution of Trump in the second half was a little more effective, certainly in the long run. Rubio may be out of the race, by the latest March 15, as he’s not expected to take his home state of Florida; the kiss of death. However, it was nice to see them work together when it was assumed that it would be Trump and Rubio against Cruz. I think Trump was surprised as well.
My predictions for the impact of this debate are as follows. Trump will lose 5-10% support ahead of Super Tuesday. He’ll still win a lot of states, but the margins will be smaller, allowing Cruz or Rubio to pick up a near equal amount of delegates. Rubio will stay the same or pick up 1-2% in the polls. He will not win a single state on March first. Cruz will see his numbers increase by 5-7%. He will take Texas handily, the biggest haul of Super Tuesday, possibly even reaching that threshold of over 50% where he doesn’t have to share any delegates. Additionally, he will win in Arkansas, and probably one or two others. It’ll be close, but Cruz may come out of Tuesday in a tie or even ahead of his rivals in the delegate count. It’ll come down to messaging and voter turnout over the next few days. Whatever happens, it is clear that Trump is not inevitable.
– Ryan Thorson