I hate to say it, but Donald Trump won tonight’s debate, in my opinion. He did so mainly by winning his big exchange with Ted Cruz on “New York values.” This, he accomplished by playing the 9/11 card and playing with a solemnity I hadn’t seen from him. Gone, momentarily, was the show biz Trump. This was Trump speaking compellingly from the heart, or so it seemed.
Cruz could have preempted Trump’s retort. When asked what he meant by New York values, Cruz could have started by talking about the positive values displayed in New York on 9/11. Then he could have discussed, more in sorrow than in anger, the social liberalism of New Yorkers and tied it to positions Trump has taken.
Cruz talked about social liberalism but failed to connect it to specific Trump positions. And he left himself wide open on 9/11.
Trump and Cruz also went head-to-head on the latter’s eligibility to be president. This exchange was full of low comedy (Cruz suggesting that Trump might have a similar issue because his mother was born in Scotland; Trump bragging about his Iowa poll numbers; facetious talk about Trump and Cruz being on the same ticket).
In the end, Cruz got slightly the better of this round because (1) Trump didn’t dispute that last September he said his lawyers saw no problem with Cruz being born in Canada and (2) he admitted that he’s raising the issue now because Cruz is doing better in polls. But Trump’s victory in the “New York values” round was a decisive one.
Trump also won tonight, in my view, because he commanded the stage. Unlike in other debates, there never seemed to be a segment in which he was other than a significant factor.
In addition, Trump took less fire than his two main rivals — Cruz and Marco Rubio. His only clash other than those with Cruz was with Jeb Bush over excluding Muslims. This rehashed a dispute in a previous debate that didn’t hurt Trump then. Cruz, by contrast, had a bloody round with Rubio, while Rubio also slugged it out with Chris Christie.
Here are my thoughts about the six candidates who shared the stage with Trump and the extent to which they advanced what I take to be their short-term goals:
Ted Cruz: Cruz’s priority right now is to win Iowa. Maybe his “New York values” theme will play well there even after tonight. But Cruz also took hits from Rubio. Moreover, Ben Carson did pretty well (see below), so Cruz may not be able to count on gaining new support from voters who have been supporting the doctor until now.
Marco Rubio: Rubio was on fire tonight and spoke brilliantly. However, his short-term goal is to be the top non-Trump candidate in New Hampshire, and three of his competitors for that mantle — Christie, Bush, and John Kasich — all did pretty well tonight. Meanwhile, Rubio took hits from Christie and Cruz.
Rubio also seemed lame when he tried to change the immigration conversation from his past lenient positions on immigration to the need, in light of recent developments, to prevent radical Islamists from coming into the country. One has little to do with the other. Furthermore, as Cruz noted, Islamists were trying to enter this country at the time Rubio pushed the Gang of Eight legislation.
Ben Carson: Carson’s priority is to get back into the game in Iowa. His answers were well-tailored to this purpose. For example, early on, in an answer to a question about the relevance of Bill Clinton’s indiscretions to this presidential campaign, Carson spoke passionately (for him) about the need for values and standards, the importance of unity, the difference between right and wrong, and the Judeo Christian roots of our values.
Iowa caucus-goers are more likely to be impressed by this answer than by Cruz’s references to “New York values.” I’m not suggesting that Carson is likely to experience a significant revival in Iowa. But, as noted earlier, he may revive enough to hurt Cruz at the margin. So Carson seems mainly like a “spoiler” at this point.
Chris Christie: Christie’s priority is to win first or second place in New Hampshire. He did nothing to hurt that prospect tonight. Rubio did hit him hard on gun control, supporting Sonia Sotomayor, favoring common core, and giving money to Planned Parenthood. Christie denied most of these allegations. If the facts end up supporting Rubio, Christie has a problem.
Jeb Bush: Bush’s priority is also to finish first or second in New Hampshire. By avoiding fire tonight and speaking well, Bush still has a shot at accomplishing this. At times, he seemed like the most “presidential” participant. At other times, he looked, dare I say it, a little “low energy.”
John Kasich: Add Kasich to the list of candidates needing to make a mark in New Hampshire. He might pull it off. His themes — pragmatism, experience, working class background, and ability to work across ideological lines — might carry the day with, say, 20 percent of New Hampshire primary participants. That might be good for second place, though I’m not sure what Kasich would do for an encore. In any case, he had a pretty good night.
BY THE WAY: I wish Fox had seen fit to include Carly Fiorina in tonight’s debate. She’s ahead of John Kasich in the Real Clear Politics national poll average. I understand that Fox decided to use a different criterion, but her exclusion still seems arbitrary.
It also lowered the quality of the debate and probably helped Donald Trump, who has had trouble coping with Fiorina.
UPDATE: Late in the debate, Trump took fire from just about everyone on the issue of imposing stiff tariffs on China. But Trump’s tough stance against China is likely to appeal to a goodly portion of Republican voters, and certainly to his supporters.