Paul and Bush benefit, Cruz suffers without Trump on the stage

"Seriously? We couldn't even get a hologram of Trump on the stage?" Ted Cruz didn't look quite as good without The Donald to serve as his foil. (AP Photo / Chris Carlson)

“Seriously? We couldn’t even get a hologram of Trump on the stage?” Ted Cruz didn’t look quite as good without The Donald to serve as his foil. (AP Photo / Chris Carlson)

Jeb sounding a bit firmer. Ted sounding a bit shakier. Rand sounding a lot Paul-ier.

My, what might have been if every night of this GOP primary had been like Thursday night’s debate: Trump-less.

Donald Trump’s decision to boycott the debate left “an elephant not in the room,” as his bete noire, Megyn Kelly, put it at the beginning of the event. But quickly, the missing elephant wasn’t so large. Before long, it was hardly even missed.

Take away the single biggest fact of this election — that one showman has used it for his own self-aggrandizement, to the confusion, harm and apparent hypnosis of many — and it looks a lot different. We saw a glimpse of that parallel universe Thursday night. The fortunate thing is that it’s not too late for that alternate reality to gradually become actual reality as voters (finally!) begin casting ballots.

The candidate who has suffered the most from Trump’s presence during the rest of the campaign, to judge by his absence during the debate, is Rand Paul. The senator who was expected to build on his father’s legacy by continuing to champion the libertarian wing of the GOP has, instead, found himself mired in a primary with candidates trying to follow Trump’s lead toward the hard lines. During Thursday’s debate, Paul was freer to draw contrasts with the rest of the field on issues such as defense spending and the war on drugs. Liberated from the need to go after Trump, Paul roamed from hitting Ted Cruz on amnesty to Marco Rubio on NSA data collection. To be fair, Paul has done some of this even with Trump on stage. But he came across as much surer of himself Thursday, much abler at promoting his natural niche within the party and perhaps broadening his constituency. There is still a chance he surprises us on the upside in Iowa next week, but I have to think Trump’s prolonged dominance of the primary has cost him the chance to do much more than that.

Next among the candidates who showed a renewed fight in them absent Trump was Jeb Bush. It’s true, as he lamented at one point, that Bush has been the most consistent about taking on Trump during these debates, even though he just doesn’t have the personality to go toe-to-toe with Trump. Bush on Thursday looked like a kid who knew the bully wasn’t at school that day, and who therefore didn’t have to keep looking over his shoulder for the “kick me” sign taped to his back.

For a candidate who has gained the most from Trump, and seemed to suffer from his absence, I would point to Cruz. Cruz has been drafting behind Trump for months, benefiting from contrasts or similarities between them as it suited him. He hasn’t quite made the right maneuvers to pass the leader, but it’s still to his advantage to have Trump right there ahead of or beside him. That wasn’t the case Thursday. Cruz wasn’t as free to pick his spots, and he had to assume the role of the race’s leader without having actually earned it. His performance was spotty. He looked petty and whiny complaining about his treatment by the moderators, who were hardly unfair to him. He, like Rubio, made his best defense of himself when the moderators played old clips of him singing a different tune on immigration less than three years ago, but on the whole those exchanges were a net loss for him. (By the way, those old clips were a great addition to the debate, and I hereby call for the next debate to feature nothing but Trump responding to old clips of him speaking the Democrats’ party line.) He tried to liken his call for “carpet bombing” ISIS territory to the way the first Gulf War was prosecuted, which is simply inaccurate. He did, however, make a brave stand against Iowans’ beloved federal corn ethanol mandate.

Rubio wound up at the top of the debate grades, which is right where he’s been in the debates that included Trump. He’s the most talented all-around candidate in the race, and that’s the same whether Trump is in or out of it.

Those who have been also-rans in the past — Ben Carson, Chris Christie, John Kasich — mostly remained also-rans. I have a feeling Carson would have faded even sooner, and might not have peaked as high, had Trump not been in the race to stoke the anti-establishment flames.

As far as whether the debate will have any effect on the voting, it’s tempting to say no, since Trump didn’t actually drop out. That said, caucus-goers in 2012 broke very late for Rick Santorum — almost one-fifth of his supporters made up their minds the day of the caucus — so there’s a chance. While my impression is that Cruz’s ground game is too strong to suffer much, it may be that some of his more libertarian-leaning supporters peel away to Paul after he sounded more like his old self. If there is a big move to be made late, it could be in Paul’s favor and at Cruz’s expense. But that’s a lot of “may” and “if” and “could.”

Reader Comments 0

22 comments
AvgGeorgian
AvgGeorgian

How could Cruz be seriously considered for president if he couldn't even figure out whether he had health insurance or not (he did) and told everyone that he lost his policy due to Obamacare.


Poor little super smart Ted - us regular working folks have to figure out health insurance options, make decisions and choose the best option for our families. 


If Ted can't figure out health insurance for his family, how could he have possibly hoped to figure it out for our country.

McGarnagle
McGarnagle

Trump will be the republican nominee because he is so anti-establishment, he doesn't have to conform to conservative values. 


What an upside down world we are living in.

Bruno2
Bruno2

Kyle: "But quickly, the missing elephant wasn’t so large. Before long, it was hardly even missed."

I didn't watch last night's debate, but hey, that shouldn't stop me from rendering an opinion, right??  ; > }

My prediction is this:  Trump's decision to not attend the debate will be the first nail in his campaign coffin.  Americans don't like cowards.  If Trump has a beef with Megyn Kelly, he should have showed up and tried to get the best of her. 

RafeHollister
RafeHollister

Kyle I think you are pretty much on target with your observations. Paul and Bush did look stronger in the absence of the bully, but that in itself is a problem.  Who wants a President who can be so easily bullied and thrown off their game by someone as light weight as Trump.


Trump was obviously diminished by not being there.  I think that was a yuge mistake on his part.  Rubio looked better than Cruz because he dodged the flip flop issue by talking about where he is today, rather than follow Cruz with the tortured excuses and lies about what he previously said which was featured on the tape.


This campaign has done what it was designed to do, expose their weaknesses, so we are left to choose the lesser of the evils.  I am left between Rubio and Cruz, neither of whom are totally trustworthy.   Rubio I fear will just be a tool of the special interests and aligned with McConnell and Ryan for more of the status quo, but Cruz can't get along with anyone and probably couldn't get a consensus together to do much of anything.  The salvation is usually the winner has already been selected by the time Georgia votes, so my decision is usually made for me.  If someone wins two of the first three primaries, momentum builds and they have pretty much eliminated everyone but those who finished second or third.  System sucks in that regard.


Whoever survives will be much better than another pandering progressive, even Trump.

Kyle_Wingfield
Kyle_Wingfield moderator

@RafeHollister "but that in itself is a problem.  Who wants a President who can be so easily bullied and thrown off their game by someone as light weight as Trump."

Very good point.

RafeHollister
RafeHollister

@lvg @RafeHollister Yeah, I think this is a GOP year, folks are so sick of Obama/Hillary and where the country is, they are going to vote for change.  Whomever wins the GOP, I think will win against whomever the Dems nominate as their salvage guy.  Their old white guy, whomever it is, will have a difficult task of picking up the pieces the indicted Hillary left behind.

bu22
bu22

@Kyle_Wingfield @RafeHollister Trump just throws everyone off the issues of how to deal with the problem and into just emoting about it.  Hard for rational people like Paul and Bush to get across logical points with a ranting Reality TV star sucking up all the oxygen (and air time) in the room.   A debate doesn't exactly mimic the job of President.  To some extent they looked better because people actually talked about the issues instead of dealing with a kindergartner shouting insults.  So don't elect Paul or Bush for kindergarten teacher.

lvg
lvg

@RafeHollister So you thing the Canadian Senator from Texas is electable when no one in Congress except the Freedom anarchists will work will work with him? 

Caius
Caius

Well, per Trump we will have a Cruz vs Trump debate as soon as Cruz finds a court that says he is a natural born citizen and eligible to be president.

Rubio seemed to be confused over what the latest polling says on the main issues.  He was trying to be on both sides of way to many issues. 


Rand Paul needs to just move over and become the nominee of the Libertarian party.  He is a better fit there.


So a weekend ahead of the Iowa speakeasies we have a Democrat leading for the Republican nomination and a Socialist closing in for the Democratic nomination.  Based on their political history they might make a wonderful president and vice president ticket for some party desperate for nominees.








FIGMO2
FIGMO2

Second tier?

I very much appreciated Fiorina's defense of Rick Santorum's

pro-life credentials.

Oftentimes I'll admonish the AJC's liberals for using my positions and/or comments to attack another unsuspecting conservative blogger.

I see them as liberal chickenhawks of a sort. Nothing to admire in their technique. 

Eye wonder
Eye wonder

@FIGMO2

I have no idea what you're trying to say with that there word salad. Could be just me of course, but I think you are mixing in too many ingredients that don't go together.

As for Fiorina, man oh man oh man did she get a lot of egg on her face as a result of that PP video she kept on bleating about.  Proverbially speaking, it's as if 1,000 chickens each laid ten eggs right on her witch-like noggin.

Kyle_Wingfield
Kyle_Wingfield moderator

@Eye wonder "Could be just me of course"

I'd go with that. The above comment was perfectly clear to me.

Kyle_Wingfield
Kyle_Wingfield moderator

@Eye wonder I responded to someone's comment about that on a different thread. As I said there, a competent DA can get an indictment for a ham sandwich, as the saying goes. Let's see if there's a conviction before deciding Daleiden was in the wrong.

lvg
lvg

GOP Clown bus fell apart last night thanks to Trump and  Fox News. Debate was a nonevent and as Kyle points out Cruz made a fool out of himself and whined about being picked on by the moderators.  Glad to see Fox News imploding when criticized by a GOP leader- best part of the circus performance. 

Trump pulled off a well publicized circus event that said nothing about his true agenda and the key issues. He did attract two GOP losers to firm up votes from the Fundamentalist Christian voters . Some Attorney General should immediately close down and seize the assets of the phony veteran's foundation Trump set up  in one day to collect alleged six million dollars. Total fraud.

WardinConyers
WardinConyers

@lvg Well, we certainly know where you stand.  Why did you even bother watching the debate.  Instead, you could have just watched the last "townhall' pseudo debate with the softball questions, many that Hillary refused to answer.  Apparently, you brook liars, too.

lvg
lvg

@WardinConyers @lvg Tell me more about where I stand. Hillary is no better than Trump when it comes to her honesty and  electability. Trump is skating to the lead due to independents like me  having no desire to vote for Hillary or Bernie. Kasich is the only one I would vote for if he were on the ballot

bu22
bu22

@concernedoldtimer Rubio looked nervous, out of breath and hyper the whole time, like he hadn't slept in 48 hours.  He seemed much more at ease in the earlier debates.  He came out looking bad on the immigration question.  He wouldn't stand up for his position.  He also was just way to obvious in pandering to the evangelicals, throwing in his faith regardless of the question.  He assumes voters are stupid, just like Hillary.

FIGMO2
FIGMO2

Cruz wasn’t as free to pick his spots, and he had to assume the role of the race’s leader without having actually earned it.

Cruz was forced to assume the position (videos) and that left him lookin' not so conservative. There's a lack of sincerity in Cruz that leaves me wanting.