This Was Only About Three Men

Republican presidential candidate, businessman Donald Trump speaks as Republican presidential candidate, Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, looks on during the Fox Business Network Republican presidential debate at the North Ch... Republican presidential candidate, businessman Donald Trump speaks as Republican presidential candidate, Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, looks on during the Fox Business Network Republican presidential debate at the North Charleston Coliseum, Thursday, Jan. 14, 2016, in North Charleston, S.C. (AP Photo/Rainier Ehrhardt) MORE LESS
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This debate had a lot of drama and pyrotechnics. But debates lead to elections. And elections are zero-sum exercises. Everyone who does well must do so at someone else’s expense. From that perspective, I think there were only three real players in this exercise: Trump, Cruz and Rubio. Trump wins, Cruz loses a bit of ground but not much and the clock continues to run out on Rubio.

Trump was the strongest, both in absolute terms and relative to what he needed to do given his current standing in the polls. After a somewhat slow start he was a dominant force throughout the debate. It’s been a subtle process but he’s no longer that freakshow who is bizarrely running up the poll numbers. He’s the frontrunner. He’s being treated as such. His early debates were crude and aggressive; the middle ones he fell back and became more restrained. Now he dominates the conversation in a way that seems familiar both to him and his competitors. The 9/11 evocation was a complete shutdown of Cruz. That was a big moment. He didn’t do nearly as well on the birth eligibility question – in part because he wasn’t terribly well prepared: leading with Larry Tribe who really is an almost iconically liberal law professor. That’s leading with your chin in a GOP debate. Why not Trevor Potter, career Republican lawyer?

But even though he handled it clumsily, I think Trump did more damage than it may seem. He commanded a huge audience for a couple minutes hitting a central point: Cruz may not be eligible. The Democrats will sue. It’s a risk.

The truth is, as we’ve reported over the last couple days, the law is not that clear cut – far less than I had realized. That will become more clear over coming days. So Cruz’s claim that it is a silly or baseless issue (an extremely high standard) won’t hold up. And Trump, albeit less ably than he might have, seeded the question for a wide audience. That will matter in the coming days and weeks going into the key early trials.

Cruz did pretty well himself, especially in the early part of the debate. He hit his key points, managed his first exchange with Trump well. But the New York values exchange was crushing. When someone comes after you with an anvil and you end up clapping for them for the second half of their answer you’ve lost very badly.

So solid, if more uneven debate for Cruz. I think it keeps him as something between the co-frontrunner and designated alternative to Trump. But Trump remains and I think solidified his role as frontrunner tonight.

Finally Rubio.

There’s no one here who can breeze through a few hundred words and have it seem polished, direct and coherent the way that he can. But he’s done that in pretty much every debate so far. And it hasn’t helped him. The exchange with Christie went poorly for him and I think made stick the rap on Rubio that he’ll trash people that he used to praise just to help his campaign. Christie stomped him. And the fact that he’s having to do face offs with Christie, this late in the game, is perhaps the clearest illustration of how bad a position he’s in. I also think he stumbled in his effort to explain his turnabout on comprehensive immigration reform as justified by the rise of ISIS. That doesn’t pass the laugh test.

Stepping back though, I don’t think Rubio had a bad debate. He seemed as fine as he has in any of the others. But right now, he’s on the verge of being eclipsed as a real contender in the race. Cruz has taken and continues to hold the ‘alternative to Trump’ position that Rubio should have claimed. I saw nothing in this debate that will change that trajectory. I think we come out of this debate with it still being a Trump/Cruz race, with Trump in a somewhat stronger position than he went in, Cruz slightly weaker and the clock running out on Marco Rubio.

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