- Thursday’s debate was heated with everyone attacking everyone.
- Trump, Cruz, and Rubio continue to look good with no one else really doing much.
- Notably absent was Rand Paul who has been using the media well to cover his lack of invite.
It’s no secret Sen. Ted Cruz is an excellent debater. We saw the gloves come off early. He eviscerated Donald Trump on the “birther” issue in a well-prepared, methodical way. Cruz rattled Trump in a way we hadn’t seen before. He extracted an admission from Trump that he’s only going after him now because of how close the polls are, and that if he lost, he’d happily “go back to building buildings if this doesn’t work out.” It made him look petty.
But while Cruz got the better of Trump early on, it didn’t last.
Trump effectively neutralized Cruz’s momentum in his response to the “New York values” attack. Without a doubt, that was one of Trump’s best moments of all the debates. Despite the ugliness early on, Trump showed rhetorical skill in a measured tone not often seen on the campaign trail. Trump also managed not to fade away the way he has in past debates. Bottom line, he didn’t hurt himself, and his support will remain strong.
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And Cruz is not the only one who demonstrated strong debating skills. Marco Rubio came into this debate with the largest target on his back after taking incoming attacks from the other candidates vying for the consolidated establishment vote, mainly Jeb Bush and Chris Christie. More than once he inserted himself into exchanges with superior knowledge of the issues, from a vociferous defense of the Second Amendment to taxes to national security. He cleverly turned the immigration issue around, using what is usually a vulnerability for him to focus on how ISIS can manipulate our current immigration system and the threat it poses. Will that satisfy weary conservatives? That remains to be seen.
The jabs between Cruz and Rubio started in the last debate with Cruz inflicting damage on Rubio. But not Thursday night. It was Rubio who threw down the gauntlet against Cruz in a fierce, 30-second, laser-focused listing of several policy flip-flops by Cruz. Rubio said “that’s not conservative consistency, that’s political calculation.”
Cruz attempted to rebut by claiming Rubio’s attacks weren’t true, but Rubio shot back, “That’s your record.” It was Rubio’s drop-the-mic moment.
As we get closer to Iowa, I suspect that won’t be the last one.
Tara Setmayer is former communications director for Rep. Dana Rohrabacher, R-California, and a CNN political commentator. Follow her on Twitter @tarasetmayer.