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Presidential Horse Race 2016: Establishment’s last shot fails to bag Ted Cruz

We’re only two weeks distant from the last Republican presidential debate, but it feels like an eternity since the candidates met in South Carolina to talk about Donald Trump’s “New York values” and Ted Cruz’s eligibility for the office of president.

It all seemed simpler back then.

Ted CruzThere may have been only fourteen days in the interim, but it’s almost like the race has completely changed. With the lead-up to this debate (which took place at the Iowa Events Center in Des Moines, hosted by Fox News) being dominated by Donald Trump’s decision to boycott the forum – and hold a competing event three miles away at the same time – you couldn’t help but feel something “big” was going to happen.

Aside from Trump, there was a real buzz of anticipation concerning the caucuses themselves, now a mere three days hence. When the debate wrapped up at a couple minutes before ten o’clock local time, there was a heavy sensation that it’s now “all over but the voting” and the real race to this summer’s Republican National Convention was finally about to begin.

With seven candidates on stage, it didn’t seem empty and there was still plenty of bluster. It was a little weird being Trump-less in the beginning but it didn’t take long for the feeling to go away, especially because the poll leader was rarely mentioned. Trump’s celebrity and poll numbers have kept him at center stage throughout the campaign, but his absence didn’t detract from the fact there were still several good candidates present.

In fact, The Donald’s invisibility gave the forum a seriousness that’s been lacking at times during the debates with Trump’s personal insults, facial expressions and wild hand gestures distracting from the real issues. Trump’s unconventional debate style has often been entertaining, but it’s also seemed like a stage act.

Even without Trump to object, there was a complaint about Fox’s moderators (Bret Baier, Chris Wallace and Megyn Kelly) from Ted Cruz, who correctly pointed out fairly early in the debate that the questions were geared towards getting his competitors to attack him.

Cruz poked fun at Trump in saying, “If you ask one more mean question, I may have to leave the stage.” I’m not sure anyone got the joke though.

For the most part Kelly was professional and fair in her questioning, as were Baier and Wallace. Conservatives have often been correct in criticizing debate moderators for bias – but it wasn’t over-the-top Thursday night.

On the whole it was a well-run substantive debate. As always, it’s very difficult to pinpoint winners – but there was one certain loser. Donald Trump.

I’m guessing he’s feeling it himself right about now -- what a huge mistake it was to grandstand his way out of the final debate before Iowa votes. Some are saying he bowed out to give himself an excuse should he end up losing on Monday.

I think he stayed away because he was busy being The Donald. Trump repeatedly claims he always wins. I can’t help but think he’s wrong on this one.

Crazy conspiracy theory: Trump is looking for an exit strategy

To an outside observer, Trump’s decision to skip the debate is so crazy that it almost looks like he wants to lose.

Think about it. His “alternative” event might draw several thousand supporters, but that pales in comparison to the potential hundreds of thousands of Iowans watching the TV debate – not to mention the millions more watching at home across the country.

A businessman with Trump’s intelligence must realize there’s a serious numbers difference there. He’s not a fool. Could it be maybe he wants to start drawing back before it’s too late?

Before you say “no way,” consider this: Trump loves the media spotlight but even he sees the writing on the wall. Should he win the presidency, all the love and adoration he now enjoys will likely evaporate quickly as he not only endures the enmity of the Democrats, many Republicans will turn on him as well.

He’s not a conservative, so the criticisms of his decisions will start almost immediately the moment he turns away from limited government philosophy.

The presidency is no place for a man who feeds off of being loved. It’s a dirty job set for someone with iron convictions and a thick skin. Trump has neither. If he’s drawing light fire from his opponents now and not taking it very well, how will he be when he sets up camp in the Oval Office?

Donald Trump’s public persona would say no job is too big for him. But privately, maybe he’s wavering.

And that’s why he did something so stupid as to skip the final presidential debate before Iowa. Maybe, just maybe, he wants to lose and this is the way to begin the process.

He’ll make friends with Ted Cruz in the end and all will be well in Trump Tower where he can go back to being himself…and being loved by those who appreciate his act, a lovable selfless character who gave it the good fight and came up just short.

Just a thought.

Death March of the undercard former Iowa winners

In addition to the aura of excitement surrounding the main stage, there was also a tangible sense that this was the last hurrah for some of those hanging on in the field.

Foremost among those are former Iowa winners Rick Santorum and Mike Huckabee, who participated in the “Happy Hour” debate two hours before the main event along with Carly Fiorina and former Virginia Governor Jim Gilmore, who literally hasn’t been seen since August.

The undercard debate was about as consequential as you might expect. All of the candidates restated the case they’ve been making for months – that they’re the most qualified to take on Hillary Clinton or Bernie Sanders and they alone have the vision to follow-up Obama’s disastrous presidency.

Santorum began the evening by blasting the media and polls for his demotion to the undercard debates. Huckabee got in his typical barbs at the Club for Growth (who labeled him as a tax and spend liberal back in ’08).

Well, guys, if it ain’t happened by now, it probably ain’t gonna catch on in the next three days either. Fiorina has said she’ll hang on through the process, but it’s hard to see where she’ll break through.

Particularly disappointing are Santorum and Huckabee, two guys who figured to at least compete in this year’s field given their past success in the Hawkeye State. But they’ve turned on conservatives, clearly agitated they can’t attract the audiences that they once did.

Both have been vocal in criticizing Ted Cruz in the past couple months, most likely because Cruz is the heir apparent to the same voters who propelled them to victory in their respective years. The gibes have been pointed and largely unfair.

Just like other members of the establishment, Santorum has been quick to point to Cruz’s perceived lack of popularity amongst his Senate colleagues as a reason the Texas senator wouldn’t be able to “get things done” if he were elected president.

Sounds a lot like Trump, doesn’t it?

Huckabee’s bitter complaints have arguably been more personal and desperate than Santorum’s, questioning Cruz’s honesty and social conservative principles as well as his eligibility to be president.

Along the way, both have praised Donald Trump as someone who will play nicely with others. What a couple of sell-outs. So it should be no surprise that the two undercard losers decided to attend Trump’s event opposite the main debate on Thursday night.

Ben Kamisar of The Hill reports, “Spokesmen for both candidates confirmed to The Hill that the Republican presidential candidates will still participate in Thursday's undercard GOP debate, but will head to the Trump event after.

“The undercard debate begins at 7 p.m. Eastern, two hours before Trump's event is slated to start three miles away. That gives candidates who failed to reach the main stage the freedom to participate, while anyone slated for the main stage would have to skip the debate altogether to attend.”

This is the same Mike Huckabee who got so upset last September when Ted Cruz showed up at his event to publicly support Kentucky’s Kim Davis who had been jailed for refusing to issue marriage licenses to same-sex couples against her conscience.

What a hypocrite.

It’s interesting to note Jim Gilmore got in a couple pointed jabs at Santorum and Huckabee for their stated intention to go to the Trump rally. Gilmore didn’t name names, but you knew who he was talking about. Good for you, Jim.

Santorum’s and Huckabee’s actions could be seen as blatant pandering to Trump voters to try and pick off a few, but it’s more likely a sign that they both know they’re finished.

So much for all the hot air these two expended during their respective times in the spotlight, calling for party unity and conservative support to try and take down the establishment villains (played by John McCain and Mitt Romney). Instead, they’ve both shown themselves to be bitter losers.

How do you like that for a political legacy?

Candidates enjoy a seven-on-none power play against Trump, don’t even shoot the puck

Imagine this scenario: Three days before the first votes are set to be cast in an election, one candidate enjoys polling leads in the first jurisdiction to vote and across the entire country.

It’s the strategy of every opponent to try and put doubts in the voters’ minds about that leading candidate. To fail to do so is political malpractice.

The leader then decides to skip the final debate before the first votes.

Open season on him, right? Hardly.

On Thursday night, Megyn Kelly opened with a question on Trump’s boycott and Ted Cruz gently batted it away, answering, “Let me just say at the outset…I’m a maniac and everyone on this stage is stupid, fat and ugly. And Ben you’re a terrible surgeon. Now that we’ve got the Donald Trump portion out of the way…”

The rest of the candidates followed suit, hardly even mentioning The Donald. Jeb Bush said, “I kind of miss Donald Trump, he was a little teddy bear to me.”

Bush did hit Trump again later in the debate in a question over treatment of Muslims, but other than that, the New Yorker’s name hardly came up at all.

This was a great chance for the candidates to make Trump their whipping boy, but they purposely avoided it.

On the whole, a smart strategy. What good does it do to bash someone behind their back? Oh yeah, that’s what most of their Super PACs are doing for them.

Jeb Bush’s right – politics is politics. But I can’t help but think a little more negativity towards Trump would have been appropriate in this debate.

With Trump gone, it was kick Ted Cruz night

Instead of attacking the disembodied spirit of The Donald, several of the candidates focused on Ted Cruz instead.

The key exchange of the evening concerned immigration. Megyn Kelly began the segment by playing a series of video clips of Marco Rubio promising he would never be for a path to citizenship if he was sent to Washington as a senator from Florida.

In Marco’s answer, he lied. Kelly then asked him about the Gang of Eight. Rubio deflected the question as he’s been doing for months. Anyone who’s informed on the issue knows he’s lying.

The moderators then turned to Cruz, playing videos of Cruz advocating for his “take citizenship permanently off the table” poison pill amendment to the Gang of Eight bill.

By watching the videos, you see Cruz advocating for passage of the amendment – and the bill.

Cruz correctly stated that he introduced the amendment knowing it would never pass, because the Rubio-led pro-amnesty crowd would never accept taking citizenship off the table in exchange for some form of legalization in the bill.

Everyone knows that’s the sticking point. Senator Jeff Sessions agrees that Cruz was vital in the effort to defeat the bill. “One of the things you’ve been hearing about somehow is a criticism of Ted and how he and what he did with regard to this massive that they tried to ram through in 2013,” Sessions said. “Let me tell you, I was there. Every step of the way, Ted Cruz was on my side and fought this legislation all the way through.”

Instead of making a note of the truth, Rand Paul disappointingly joined the bandwagon and said Cruz can’t have it both ways. Then Rubio moved in for the kill: “This is the lie that Ted’s campaign is built on. The truth is you will say anything to get votes. We’re not going to win against Hillary Clinton with someone who will say or do anything to get elected.”

No, Marco, you are the one who will say anything to get elected. You’re gifted in a debate setting, but you’re not a leader and people will see through the lies.

Read this article (link). Who’s telling the truth now, Marco?

As gifted as Ted Cruz is in a debate setting, Marco Rubio won this event on presentation. But in terms of content and veracity, Cruz prevailed with plenty of room to spare.

Establishment vs. establishment, everyone loses

It’s interesting to note, even in a year where the “outsiders” have consistently taken at least 60 percent of the vote that the low polling establishment candidates outnumbered the insurgents on stage in the final debate.

In reality, with Trump not there, the only real “outsider” contender present was Ted Cruz. Ben Carson started fading three months ago and there’s no sign that he’s making a comeback – though he did well in the few times he had a chance to speak during the debate. Rand Paul, for the most part, was a nice addition to the main debate, but there aren’t many signs that he’s a major player either.

That left the establishment quartet (Jeb Bush, John Kasich, Chris Christie and Marco Rubio) to vie for what’s left of the moderate support in the race. Only Marco Rubio has a pulse in Iowa, which left an even stranger dynamic in the sense that the establishment clique was basically speaking to New Hampshire voters rather than Iowans.

John Kasich appears to have abandoned the crazy uncle routine in favor of his latest strategy of arguing for unity. Whenever he starts talking about his experiences in Ohio, my eyes glaze over. It’s impossible to separate fact from fiction. To hear Kasich talk, he’s for everything and nothing at the same time.

Chris Christie’s known for savaging his fellow establishment opponents on the campaign trail, yet when he gets in a debate setting he saves all his barbs for the easy targets of Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama. It’s almost like he’s running a general election campaign rather than speaking days before Iowa votes.

Christie’s probably (pardon the pun) the biggest example of a principle-free establishment politician who “governs” by selling out principle for results. A half a loaf isn’t better than going hungry when the loaf is moldy.

That leaves us with Marco Rubio and Jeb Bush. If any political friendships have been completely destroyed by the 2016 campaign, it’s these two.

On this issue, Bush seems to have the upper hand. Jeb candidly admits that Marco Rubio asked him to support the Gang of Eight bill and then left him hanging when Rubio abandoned the effort.

There’s more to the enmity between the two, but that’s the gist. Bush feels betrayed by his former protégé.

I’m not taking Bush’s side here. Marco Rubio is very gifted in speaking, able to throw together thoughts quickly in a manner that sounds very pleasing. But what lies below the surface? Did he lead the fight for limited government even when it wasn’t politically expedient?

No.

Based on the comments of the commentators after the debate, the establishment has found its candidate in Marco Rubio. But just because he’s their guy doesn’t mean he’ll win.

As the leader of the conservatives, Ted Cruz has other advantages, such as superior organization. Nothing in this debate is going to deter Cruz’s ardent supporters from working for him come Monday night. And that’s the ultimate point – who’s going to the caucuses?

Summing it up – let’s get it started already

After half of year of campaigning, thousands of events, tens of millions of dollars spent and mile upon mile on the road, we’re on the doorstep of real people casting votes in the 2016 Republican presidential race.

For many of us, it couldn’t come soon enough.

Erick Erickson of The Resurgent sums it all up nicely. “I’m ready for Iowa to come on Monday. At this point, I want it to be over more than I want a particular person to win. It just needs to be done. The process to get to Monday has been fatiguing and irritating. I am unsure if the sound and fury of Trump voters translates into votes. I want to know. I am tired of waiting. For political junkies, of which I am one, this is like having the present under the tree. I just want to unwrap it and see what it is.”

Count on me to be tugging at that wrapping paper as well.

Thursday night’s debate probably helped some people make up their minds for Monday and in the near future. A lot’s going to happen quickly now. It’s been a long, long road already – and the race is finally about to start.

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