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Presidential Horse Race 2016: Donald Trump won the Fox Business debate, but is he eligible?

Compared to the previous two Republican presidential nomination cycles, the 2016 version has offered relatively few debates.

The first event was on August 6th (in Cleveland) and there’s been one in each month since. The last debate was in Las Vegas a month ago. A lot has happened in those 30 days, but one thing that hasn’t changed much are the polls.

Fox Business debateThe relative stagnation of the race was certainly one of the themes going into Thursday night’s debate (at the North Charleston Coliseum and Performing Arts Center in South Carolina, hosted by the Fox Business Network), with the candidates looking to hopefully dent the enduring lead of “outsider” populist Donald Trump and the steady rise of conservative champion Ted Cruz.

As of Thursday night, Trump enjoys a fifteen point lead over second place Cruz in the Real Clear Politics average, with Marco Rubio a distant third 7.5 points behind Cruz. Ben Carson takes fourth at 9 percent, the only other candidate above 5 percent in the national average.

Unlike the previous debates, only seven candidates participated in the “main event” and even the undercard forum was reduced to three (due in part to Rand Paul’s refusal to accept a demotion). Lindsey Graham and George Pataki have dropped out since last month, but there probably wasn’t a single person present who cared, even when debate moderator Maria Bartiromo asked a series of foreign policy questions based on the South Carolina senator’s neoconservative views.

At this stage of the race, with most of the attention going to Trump, Cruz and Rubio, the presence of the other candidates seemed more like afterthoughts than serious contenders. Maybe the main stage should’ve been reduced to three and the “Happy Hour” version should have had seven or eight instead.

Back in August you could have a bunch of low-polling competitors participate and it was acceptable. But after a half-year of getting to know every member of this field, do we really need to hear more from Chris Christie, John Kasich and Jeb Bush?

I didn’t include Carson in that group because theoretically he still has a chance to finish in the top four in Iowa, where he’s holding down fourth place (also at 9 percent). Carson received some more bad news prior to Thursday night (see below), however, and all signs indicate he’s in deep trouble.

With that in mind, the South Carolina debate was substantive and helpful in further clarifying where each candidate stands on a number of key issues. I’m not sure it added much in aiding undecided folks to make up their minds, but with more puzzle pieces in place, at least the picture is getting clearer.

If there was a “winner” I would have to say it was Donald Trump. Ted Cruz was the only one who directly questioned anything Trump said and for most of the evening The Donald was given free rein to say pretty much whatever he wanted.

Trump wasn’t any more substantive than he ever is, yet makes arguments that are easily digestible to many Americans. His message is simple: Our leadership is awful, I will employ the same means I’ve always used to “win” and I won’t be politically correct in doing it.

He was particularly effective in saying near the end of the debate that he would completely give up running his company in order to focus on America (I think he even said he wouldn’t care about anything except America, letting his kids take over running his business endeavors).

Trump’s not a conservative yet he delivers a conservative message and is convincing people that he’s sincere. “I will gladly accept the mantle of angry,” he replied when asked about Nikki Haley’s jab at him in the State of the Union response.

In that way he was able to turn a negative into a positive.

Trump will continue to lead nationally, but the only contests that matter right now are in Iowa and New Hampshire.

Time to end the undercard debates

Having only three candidates on stage for a debate would normally look odd, but the Democrats seem to be okay with it, so the Republicans went ahead with it too.

2008 Iowa winner Mike Huckabee, 2012 Iowa winner Rick Santorum and “outsider” debate specialist Carly Fiorina put on a good show, for the most part, but their main problem is that most folks aren’t listening to them anymore.

They’re not new faces now…even Fiorina is a well-known quantity these days.

Both Huckabee and Santorum have been in the news lately for attacking Ted Cruz in Iowa, but they stuck mostly to their standard talking points during the one hour event. On the smaller stage, Fiorina stood out, zinging Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton with one-liners in her opening answer and once again touting her ability to lead throughout the forum.

Basically, there wasn’t anything we haven’t heard before from any of them. Fiorina did make a good case for how she would reduce government with baseline budgeting and a thorough review of governmental expenditures. But one gets the sense that merely making the government run more efficiently isn’t enough to satisfy today’s conservative voters who want a change in government culture as much or more than a reduction in its size.

That’s a message that Trump and Cruz convey very well. That’s why they’re leading.

Carly’s 100% right in saying government is broken. We all know that. But people want someone who’s committed to ending the status quo. I’m not sure she’s it.

Fiorina probably “won” the debate, but I’m guessing it won’t help her make the main stage again for the next event on January 28 (in Iowa).

If Fox News (the next debate host) isn’t going to expand the main stage to the eleven remaining candidates, which is highly unlikely, this could – and should – be the last undercard debate.

Trump and Cruz’s exchanges were entertaining but with no resolution

In addition to the questions surrounding who might go after Trump, one of the big mysteries leading into the debate was the degree to which the other candidates would target Ted Cruz.

With much discussion of which candidates occupy which “lanes” on the Republican highway, it’s clear Cruz has nailed down several of them. Trump’s base of support is somewhat wide (and a little nebulous), consisting of moderates, liberals, some conservatives and the angriest of the angry.

In the recent Fox poll, for example, respondents believed Trump would be the best choice to reverse the incredibly negative effects of the Obama agenda. Cruz came in second.

There’s also been a lot written about Ted Cruz’s seeming unwillingness to attack Trump directly. Many have speculated there’s some sort of unspoken “deal” between them, since The Donald has largely returned the favor – at least until the recent “birther” controversy.

This week, perhaps in response to Trump, Cruz changed course…a little.

Eliza Collins of Politico reports, “The Texas senator, who had been avoiding going after Donald Trump for much of the campaign cycle, finally hit back after Trump questioned Cruz’s eligibility for the White House. Cruz suggested in an interview with ‘The Howie Carr Show’ Tuesday that Trump ‘may shift in his new rallies to playing 'New York, New York,' because you know Donald comes from New York and he embodies New York values.’”

Wow. Talk about a severe blow to Trump. Only the media could make a big deal over Cruz claiming Trump has “New York values.” If you think that’s harsh, try talking to Marco Rubio about what Jeb Bush has been saying about him.

Trump’s spokeswoman even said the other day they don’t see Cruz as a “serious” candidate, so why would they mind Ted claiming The Donald has “New York values?”

Regardless, it’s clear that many folks see Cruz as a threat.

Both the “birther” and “New York values” topics came up during Thursday’s debate and both exchanges between Trump and Cruz provided the bulk of the entertaining moments of the debate.

Trump reiterated his point that the “birther” argument would certainly be made by the Democrats if Ted becomes the nominee. Cruz answered by saying that several different interpretations of who is a “natural born citizen” could bring other candidates into question… including Donald J. Trump (his mother was born in Scotland).

Cruz said, “Since September, the Constitution hasn’t changed, but the poll numbers have,” and “On the issue of citizenship, I’m not going to use your mother’s birth against you.”

Good points. I’m not sure either man got the better of the back-and-forth, but Trump was successful in keeping the matter alive.

One issue that Trump didn’t press was the “loan” Cruz took during his 2012 senate campaign in Texas. When prompted, Cruz adequately explained it was a reporting error and that was pretty much it on that subject.

The only other contentious exchange involving Cruz was with Marco Rubio near the end concerning the Florida senator’s position on immigration.

In other words, despite the political pundits predicting it would be a tense “cage match” between the candidates and Cruz, it was actually a mostly civil battle of ideas which Ted emerged from unscathed.

Why Ted Cruz feels so comfortable in debates

We all know about Ted Cruz’s many and varied battles with the Washington Republican establishment. Out on the campaign trail, one of his constant themes is to rail against the “Washington Cartel,” which certainly includes the leadership of his own party as well as the Democrats and powerful financial interests.

As a result, Cruz has been a lightning rod for criticism. People say he’s unfriendly, arrogant, self-centered and ambitious. These are the “anonymous sources close to the situation” we read about in news stories, saying all sorts of vile things but refusing to go on the record to back them up.

Rather than having it bother him, Cruz seems to relish the attention – not because he’s a glutton for punishment, but because he loves to debate. His penchant for memorizing important facts and texts began as a child and he’s used the talent to first become a champion debater in college and now in the political arena.

He’s also able to switch strategies when necessary, as demonstrated by his domination of the last two debates.

Shane Goldmacher and Katie Glueck of Politico report, “Cruz is inarguably the most experienced and technically proficient debater on stage. At Princeton, he was a championship-level competitor in the American Parliamentary Debate Association, known by peers for his exhaustive preparation and breakdown of performances after the fact. And his old colleagues and foes recognize the Cruz they knew in college on the nation’s biggest stage — the polish, the dramatic pauses, the tactical topic shifts.”

That preparation and polish was in full view on Thursday night.

Cruz fielded the first question of the evening which concerned the economy and jobs, a hot subject in any political campaign. But instead of answering it straight up Ted shifted to talking about the American sailors who were taken captive by Iran this week, using descriptive language to make the point that he would never allow such shame if he is elected president.

In doing so, he was taking something that’s fresh in people’s minds and steering the discussion towards a subject where he’s very strong.

He then spent the balance of his time talking about jobs and the economy. Brilliant.

Even during the “birther” exchange with Trump, Cruz said, “I’ve spent my entire life defending the Constitution before the Supreme Court and I’ll tell you, I’m not going to be taking advice from Donald Trump.”

Because of Ted’s vast debating skills, it’s extremely hard to land a glove on him.

Because of the content of the debate on Thursday night I wouldn’t say Cruz “won,” but he definitely made his points and left voters with a very positive impression of his abilities to lead the country. Well done.

Ben Carson is the Republican race’s good guy with a troubled campaign

It’s safe to say not many knew what to make of Ben Carson’s entry into the Republican presidential race in early 2015. Many people knew of him through his books and famous speech criticizing President Obama during the National Prayer Breakfast, but very little was known about what he actually believes politically.

Through the course of months, we’ve become more familiar with those beliefs. Ben appears to be a solid conservative who honors the Founding Fathers as well as the nation’s founding documents and principles.

But it’s also become clear his campaign hasn’t been properly managed. He received another blow in that regard on Thursday.

Kyle Cheney of Politico reports, “Ben Carson's national finance chairman Dean Parker resigned Thursday morning amid questions about his use of campaign funds and criticism from Carson allies and donors.

“Carson, a retired neurosurgeon, appointed Parker, a tech industry entrepreneur from Mobile, Alabama, in May to spearhead the campaign’s fundraising efforts. Parker’s been a relatively little-noticed campaign power, having Carson’s ear despite friction with other leaders. Since he joined, some campaign insiders told POLITICO, his operation has piled up unnecessary expenses and paid hefty consulting fees to an inexperienced staff.”

Parker’s resignation follows those of other key staff in the past couple weeks, including his campaign manager. Like it or not, Carson’s campaign has all the appearance of being in big trouble.

When it comes to debates, however, it was the same old lovable Ben.

In addressing a question on whether Bill Clinton’s indiscretions are fair game in this year’s campaign, Ben replied (paraphrasing), “No question we should be able to look at any past president in terms of their past behavior and what it means.

“Is this America anymore? Do we still have standards? Where did that spirit come from in America? It didn’t come from our Judeo-Christian roots, I can tell you that. We need to recognize there is right and wrong. It’s time for us to stand up for what we believe in.”

The answer drew appropriate applause from the audience.

Carson’s “bedside manner” is a refreshing change from typical politics. But his campaign’s troubles indicate a potential gap in judgement when it comes to leadership positions.

There has to be a place for Ben in the next Republican administration – it just won’t be the top job.

Establishment melt-down. Jeb disengages but Christie and Rubio jump in

The sorry state of the establishment candidates was on full display on Thursday night. Talk about acrimony. The frustration is palpable when four of them are fighting over 25% of the vote.

I particularly liked that Marco Rubio weathervane commercial before the debate even started courtesy of Jeb Bush’s “Right to Rise” Super PAC. Classy. And Jeb still claims Marco is a “friend.”

During the debate itself, Bush quickly defused any potential attacks from other opponents by restating that every candidate would be better than Hillary Clinton and nasty stuff will be said during a campaign. Basically, just ‘forget about it guys.’

Bush had his usual mediocre debate performance by haltingly restating his oft-used positions on American intervention in the Middle East and calling for Trump to reconsider his position on barring Muslim immigration.

John Kasich talked a lot about giving voice to the middle class and added a bunch of fluff about bringing people together…I don’t know, my eyes glaze over after about ten seconds every time he speaks.

Kasich seems to go back and forth in the debates between a bad guy/nice guy persona. He even complimented Trump a couple times for his remarks on China (from which Trump replied, “I like him tonight”).

The real establishment juice was between Chris Christie and Marco Rubio, with the key exchange coming about a half hour into the program.

Rubio said he likes Christie but we can’t have a candidate who supports Common Core, gun control and the rest of Obama’s agenda. Christie answered by pointing out that Rubio went after Jeb for being put up to attacking an opponent – and then later on said “Marco, you already had your chance and you screwed it up.”

You get the impression they’re desperate. Both Rubio and Christie had pretty good showings as far as debates are concerned, but they’re not sure where their victory path would come from.

If there was a big “loser” in Thursday night’s debate, it was the establishment candidates as a group. They’re yesterday’s news. Time to move on.

Summing it up – time for choosing is at hand

In a post-debate interview, Donald Trump said he’s heading to Iowa to keep up the campaign there. Most of the other non-establishment candidates will be doing the same. Watching these competitors, you get a tangible feeling that the race is about to enter a new phase.

The “dating” period is over. Commitment time is here. The candidates have staked out their positions. We all know where they stand.

Time for choosing it at hand.

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Ted's Zingers

It wasn't just the one about not taking constitutional advice from Trump, it was also in the little exchange on "New York Values" when Cruz said "Not a lot of conservatives come out of Manhatttan!"For those of us who remember Trump trying to take a bite out of Cruz in Iowa with "Not a lot of Evangelicals come out of Cuba", that was a great payback line, or as they say in Brooklyn "Touché, MotherF---er!!"