In GOP de­bate, Cruz on the spot and Ru­bio on the hunt

The Denver Post - - OPINION - By Jonathan Bern­stein E- mail Bloomberg View colum­nist Jonathan Bern­stein at jbern­stein62@ bloomberg. net.

If Thurs­day night’s Repub­li­can de­bate had any ef­fect, it will have been on Ted Cruz, who has been fad­ing a bit in Iowa polling. He still sits within strik­ing range of Don­ald Trump, but also may have lost some ground to Marco Ru­bio.

The three most mem­o­rable mo­ments of the Fox News fo­rum were all Cruz mo­ments.

First: He botched an at­tack on the mod­er­a­tors, some­thing that is hard to do in a Repub­li­can de­bate. Cruz hit this bull’s- eye a few de­bates ago, call­ing out a panel for en­cour­ag­ing fight­ing among the can­di­dates. This time, how­ever, he bashed the mod­er­a­tors for en­cour­ag­ing at­tacks only on him. In­stead of plac­ing him­self and all the can­di­dates on the side of the au­di­ence ( in the the­ater and at home), this one just sounded whiny.

Next: The high­light of the de­bate was a long se­quence on im­mi­gra­tion, in which Fox had pre­pared flip- flop video his­to­ries, first ofMarco Ru­bio and then of Cruz. The mod­er­a­tors pressed hard on both can­di­dates, and they went af­ter each other, too ( with Rand Paul hit­ting Cruz and Jeb Bush at­tack­ing Ru­bio).

It’s some­times dif­fi­cult to know how th­ese things go over with un­de­cided vot­ers. But over­all the fram­ing of the is­sue by Fox as one of flip- flop­ping ( rather than whether they ac­tu­ally dif­fer with each other on pol­icy), and the ex­tended at­tacks, seemed to me to at least muddy the pic­ture. And that’s pre­sum­ably very good for Ru­bio, who is most vul­ner­a­ble on this is­sue.

Then: Cruz re­ceived a ques­tion on ethanol, and strongly de­fended his po­si­tion op­pos­ing fed­eral sub­si­dies for it. To my ears, it was one of his best- de­liv­ered an­swers of the night, and was cer­tain to play well with lib­er­tar­i­ans and free- mar­keters. There are very few of those in Iowa, at least on the sub­ject of corn. Nor are there likely to be many un­de­cided Repub­li­cans in the state who are more im­pressed with Cruz’s po­si­tion on the is­sue than they are up­set about it.

How does that all add up? It’s very late in the game in Iowa— too late for a bump up af­ter this de­bate to show up in polling and cre­ate the im­pres­sion of mo­men­tum. Still, if Cruz is fad­ing ( and the polls aren’t cer­tain enough to be able to say that for sure), I didn’t see any­thing on Thurs­day night to turn it around for him.

As for the rest, Ru­bio seemed over­caf­feinated, but did his usual solid job. Chris Christie con­tin­ues to huff and puff about ter­ror­ism with­out ever fill­ing in any de­tails. ( If lots of Repub­li­cans out there re­ally buy the pitch that be­ing gov­er­nor of New Jersey is the ideal prepa­ra­tion for tak­ing on Is­lamic State, Christie would be in great shape; the polls sug­gest oth­er­wise.)

Jeb Bush didn’t hu­mil­i­ate him­self. Rand Paul did fine, but he’s al­ready half­way back to run­ning for re- elec­tion in Ken­tucky, and what he’s sharp on ( civil lib­er­ties) isn’t of in­ter­est to Repub­li­can vot­ers any­way. Ben Car­son was his usual non- fac­tor, charm­ingly recit­ing the pre­am­ble of the Con­sti­tu­tion for his clos­ing state­ment. As with the last de­bate, I guessed he did well with those in­clined to like him, al­though at this point it ap­pears to be more about his fu­ture book sales than any­thing elec­toral.

The Fox mod­er­a­tors did not dis­tin­guish them­selves. There were more ques­tions about Bill Clin­ton fool­ing around ( 1) than there were about the econ­omy ( 0) or taxes ( 0) or jobs ( 0). Ask­ing a can­di­date about the polls, as they did, is a waste of ev­ery­one’s time.

Oh, there was an un­der­card de­bate again. None of them are go­ing any­where— ex­cept, in the case of Mike Huck­abee and Rick San­to­rum, to the sideshow put on by Don­ald Trump. Speak­ing of whom, he wasn’t missed on

the main stage.

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