The best feature of Thursday night’s Republican presidential debate was the small number of contestants taking part in it.
There. I said it.
We’re no longer subjected to cattle-call debates with 10 candidates squabbling over seconds of airtime. Now it’s only seven, and there are opportunities for more substantial discussions. And as such, the performances are getting sharper, and better.
So here are a few observations from the Fox Business debate…
Here’s how they came out…
1. Ted Cruz: Cruz opened the debate knocking the issue of the loan he took out to fund his 2012 Senate campaign out of the park, and he went toe-to-toe, and won decisively, with Donald Trump on the birther question. For the first hour, when the majority of the audience was paying most attention, he commanded the stage. Later, he got a bit more competition as we’ll discuss below.
2. Donald Trump: Trump lost badly on the birther fight with Cruz, who as it turns out is just as glib as Trump is, and he bogged himself down a bit on the question of tariffs on Chinese goods. But he also recalibrated his rhetoric brilliantly on Cruz’s risky “New York values” gambit, bringing up the heroic aftermath of the 9/11 attacks and overall offered a much more presentable image befitting a plausible frontrunner. Asked about statements by South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley (who was in the audience) decrying “angry voices,” Trump leaned in and explained, very reasonably, why he’s angry, and won on the question.
3. Chris Christie: He’s a bit too aggressive, and it’s tiring hearing about his time as a U.S. Attorney after 9/11. But Christie beat Marco Rubio after the latter attempted to hit him as a Common Core-and-Planned Parenthood-supporting liberal, coming off as the Alpha male in the confrontation. And Christie played one of Rubio’s best previous debate exchanges back at him, bringing back echoes of Rubio’s riposte to Jeb Bush that “someone told you…that criticizing me will get you that office” when he said “I like Marco too and two years ago, he called me a conservative reformer that New Jersey needed. And that was before he was running against me.”
4. Marco Rubio: Rubio was spirited and energetic and executed his talking points well, but he wasn’t able to decisively win either major confrontation he provoked. Rubio attacked Cruz on his tax plan after the latter had made a strong case for why it would strengthen the relative economic position of U.S. companies against China, and came out with inconclusive results at best, and got the worst of his exchanges with Christie.
5.-6.-7. Jeb Bush-John Kasich-Ben Carson: Beyond the top four it doesn’t matter. These guys are done and it even looked like they knew it during the debate.
CRUZ’S NEW YORK FRAME OF MIND
You’ll hear a lot in future days about Cruz’s having hit Trump on his “New York values,” particularly seeing as the media is centered in the Big Apple. Trump gave a far better response to Cruz than anyone would have expected, and the instant reaction is that Cruz took a beating in the exchange.
But is Cruz making a mistake in beating up New York?
Don’t be so quick to judge that.
We know that Cruz did message-testing in Iowa on the “New York values” narrative, and for him to push it in the debate with Trump standing next to him is a good indication that the test was successful. Furthermore, other than New Hampshire the early primary states are almost uniformly places where not only do most voters know exactly what “New York values” means but aren’t exactly fans of them. Even in New Hampshire, there are lots of natives who decry the presence of “Massholes,” Bostonians who fled the big city to the Granite State but took with them all their politics and socially liberal attitudes, and Cruz’s gambit could register with them as a result. As Cruz isn’t expected to win in New Hampshire, the anti-“Masshole” crowd could be enough to give him a small boost and perhaps a stronger-than-expected finish.
And while Trump might well have handled the exchange, if you game out the aftermath Cruz could well have found gold. What is Bill de Blasio, the obnoxious leftist mayor of that city, going to say in response to Cruz? What is Hillary Clinton going to say? Al Sharpton? And when they pop off against Cruz, will that put Trump on their side? What fresh news story will emerge from New York City to offer Cruz a “See, I told you so” moment later in the campaign?
Cruz is likely laying in wait for Clinton to defend New York City in tone-deaf fashion, so he can bring up the bizarre fact that Trump bought her as a party favor for his wedding. He can then suggest that there are lots of rich people in his hometown of Houston who would never have thought to buy her for that party, and the same is true in Iowa, South Carolina, the SEC primary states, and so forth.
That said, the New Yorkers in the media will rage against Cruz in response for this. Perhaps he figures he can’t get worse treatment from them than he’s already gotten.
LET’S WINNOW THIS FIELD SOME MORE
Nothing against Bush, Carson, Kasich or the contestants at the kids’ table debates, but the fat lady has begun to sing for them.
Jeb Bush’s PAC seems bound and determined to make its consultants rich by running attack ads against Marco Rubio; those attacks don’t even offer the probability the votes they’d shake loose will go to Jeb. And his debate performances continue to be woeful.
Kasich. Simply. Will. Not. Stop. Flailing. His. Arms.
And Ben Carson, who is a wonderful man and an inspiring figure, just doesn’t have a suitable command of policy to hold his own in this talented a Republican field.
As for Mike Huckabee, Rick Santorum, Carly Fiorina and the rest — if you’re at the kids’ table, you’re through. Ditto for Rand Paul, who opted not to be a factor tonight.
At this point, a four-man race is where we are. It’s Trump, Cruz, Rubio, and Christie. And any of the four ought to be colossal favorites over whoever the Democrats might belch out of their primaries.