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Presidential Horse Race 2016: Referendum on Supreme Court gives Ted Cruz lead in new national poll

We begin today with a possible shift in the Republican presidential race.

Ryan Lovelace of the Washington Examiner reports, “Texas Sen. Ted Cruz has surpassed Donald Trump for the top spot in a new national survey of the Republican presidential race from NBC News/Wall Street Journal.

Ted Cruz“Cruz leads the poll with the support of 28 percent of those surveyed, followed by Trump at 26 percent, Florida Sen. Marco Rubio at 17 percent, Ohio Gov. John Kasich at 11 percent, and Ben Carson at 10 percent.”

The survey was taken after Trump’s New Hampshire victory and Saturday’s news of Antonin Scalia’s death and the tense debate later that evening. It also reflects all the “liar” talk and petty threats to sue Cruz over his eligibility.

So it could indicate Republicans and conservatives are taking a new look at the race. It’s only one poll, but Trump’s disastrous debate tirades might finally be catching up with him.

As I indicate below, he still looks strong in South Carolina…but it’s a long race.

(Click here for the video of Cruz’s impressive appearance at the CNN town hall in South Carolina.)

Establishment South Carolina Governor Nikki Haley endorses Marco Rubio – history suggests it will have no bearing on the race

With two days to go until the important South Carolina primary, news that Palmetto State Governor Nikki Haley is endorsing Marco Rubio certainly suggests the establishment has finalized its choice on who to support in the Republican presidential race – and it’s the Florida senator, not Jeb Bush.

Jesse Byrnes of The Hill reports, “Haley had made no secret that she did not plan to endorse Trump, but it was an open question whether she would back Rubio or Bush.

“Bush has lagged in recent South Carolina polls, while Rubio has hung around third place in the Palmetto State. Other key figures in the state — including Sen. Tim Scott and Rep. Trey Gowdy — have thrown their support behind Rubio, while Sen. Lindsey Graham has supported Bush.”

The typical knee-jerk reaction of many pundits will likely be that Haley’s endorsement tips the state towards Rubio. There’s already plenty of poll evidence suggesting Marco is competing with Ted Cruz for second in South Carolina, but before people go off the rails, take a step back and consider that Haley’s firmly thrown in with the establishment already and her say-so isn’t likely to get many conservatives to jump ship on Trump or Cruz.

And let’s not forget Haley chose Mitt Romney before the 2012 primary and Newt Gingrich ended up beating him by about 13 points. Lastly, Haley’s response to President Obama’s final State of the Union address last month was roundly panned by conservatives.

If Haley’s endorsement carries any weight at all – and that’s a big “if” – it will potentially impact the race-within-a-race for the establishment candidates. New Hampshire second place finisher John Kasich didn’t figure to do well in South Carolina anyway, but Jeb Bush was hoping the historically establishment-heavy southern state would possibly help him gain leverage in the “mainstream” Republican lane.

To emphasize South Carolina’s importance to Jeb, even brother George W. Bush has been campaigning with him there this week.

It wasn’t enough to sway Haley, apparently.

As for Rubio, he seems to be coasting on a cloud a week out from his disappointing fifth place finish in New Hampshire. He had a critically well-received debate performance on Saturday night, clearly buoyed by the establishment friendly audience and moderators who tossed him softball questions and didn’t challenge him upon his calling Ted Cruz a “liar” on immigration.

It certainly appears like his “Marco Roboto” moment in New Hampshire has been forgiven and forgotten by the establishmentarian set. They probably looked around and realized their other choices were Kasich and Bush – and it made the little “robot” seem a lot more attractive once again.

Unfortunately for the elites, Rubio’s past won’t go away for good, especially his immigration views.

Alex Pfeiffer of the Daily Caller reports on another damaging event, “While serving as a city commissioner in West Miami, Marco Rubio voted in favor of a city resolution urging the federal government to give Honduran illegal immigrants permanent resident status and free them from risk of deportation, according to documents obtained by The Daily Caller.”

Why not just declare a sanctuary city, Marco?

It looks like Rubio’s amnesty trail goes all the way back to his days as a local lawmaker in South Florida. His leadership on the senate’s Gang of Eight is certainly harmful to his claim that he now favors border enforcement first and there’s nothing in his background to indicate he’s had an epiphany in his philosophical makeup.

You had to figure the establishment wasn’t about to let the Republican race come down to just Trump and Cruz, so it’s not the least bit surprising they’re consolidating around Rubio now.

Rubio certainly appears to be a go-along politician in the mold of other recent Republican nominees. He’ll play nice with the party bosses, won’t rock the boat and will be big business’s best friend in promoting amnesty at the expense of American workers.

Haley’s endorsement doesn’t change a thing. It merely confirms what we already knew.

Supreme Court vacancy should focus the campaign on the most qualified candidates, but will it?

Governor Nikki Haley’s action yesterday may not influence the Republican race all that much, but the death of conservative legend Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia certainly should.

The question at this point is whether the Court vacancy and certain Obama appointment will steer the campaign conversation more towards important matters of candidate backgrounds, records and core beliefs rather than the petty personal attacks that have been so prevalent lately.

Logic would indicate making the 2016 presidential election a referendum on the Supreme Court would favor someone like Ted Cruz (who clerked at the Supreme Court and has argued nine cases there), but this year hasn’t contained much logic to begin with.

So it’s anybody’s guess what will happen now.

David M. Drucker of the Washington Examiner writes, “There's no polling data yet to substantiate that the Supreme Court issue is damaging Trump. But Republican insiders believe it could prove damaging, to the possible benefit of Cruz and Sen. Marco Rubio of Florida, the two Republicans closest to Trump — in that order — in most polls.”

Both Cruz and Rubio have legal pedigrees, so it makes sense they’d be looked at as authorities on matters like judicial appointments and the role of the courts. The comparison between the two ends there, however. Rubio ran for his first elected office two years out of law school. It’s not really clear from his bio, but it looks like he never even practiced law.

Cruz, on the other hand, was the Solicitor General of Texas for five years, so he represented the state’s interests before the Supreme Court as its top appellate lawyer (as well as in lower federal courts when Texas was involved in a case). Needless to say, such a position demands an extremely sharp mind and a dedication to service and principles.

Adam Liptak and Matt Flegenheimer of the New York Times report Cruz’s experience before the Supreme Court helped shape his views today, writing, "Mr. Cruz routinely rails against what he calls the lawless judicial activism of the Supreme Court led by Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr., saving special scorn for its decisions upholding the Affordable Care Act and establishing a constitutional right to same-sex marriage...

“Lawyers who faced Mr. Cruz said he moved easily in the clubby world of the elite Supreme Court bar, was generally collegial and was poised in handling the barrage of questions the justices trained on him.”

If you’ve ever attended a Supreme Court argument, you know it’s some of the most intense grilling you’re ever going to get if you’re one of the lawyers presenting the case. The pressure of a presidential debate standing next to Donald Trump and taking questions from “celebrity” media figures pales in comparison.

It changes you when you go through such an experience. But it makes you better.

Everyone knows Cruz is a smart guy. His career practice has prepped him well for the kinds of challenges he’d face as president, including nominating federal judges and filling Supreme Court vacancies as well as handling adversaries and framing issues.

Donald Trump is likewise an accomplished man of many talents, but he’s severely lacking in this regard – and it shows in his disjointed speeches and debate answers. And needless to say, career-politician Marco Rubio has no executive experience whatsoever. Chris Christie was right in assailing his qualifications to be president.

Rubio is really good at running for office and winning -- and making speeches, especially of the 25-second canned variety.

Again, there’s no way of telling how much Scalia’s death will impact the Republican presidential race. But if people are really paying attention, it absolutely should matter a lot.

South Carolina a big test for Cruz, but there’s still a long way to go

In going over the news a couple days ahead of the South Carolina primary, it’s curious to see how much importance the media assigns to the outcome there.

True, losing there can potentially be the end of the road for someone like Jeb Bush. But for the others, there will be more days to come. John Kasich will certainly wait until after the Midwestern states vote before he decides to quit. Ben Carson can capitulate at any time, but who knows if he will.

Perhaps Carson’s this year’s Ron Paul, in it to the end and holding out for a convention speaking slot.

For Donald Trump, Ted Cruz and Marco Rubio, South Carolina is just another state. They’ll take the results and move on, one way or the other. That’s not to say the Palmetto State isn’t important. We just need some perspective.

Eliana Johnson of National Review writes, “South Carolina presents a critical test for Cruz, whose campaign will rise or fall on the extent of his success in uniting the GOP’s evangelical and tea-party factions, both strongly represented here and across the rest of the South.

“After Georgia secretary of state Brian Kemp led a successful effort to convince Georgia, Tennessee, Oklahoma, Alabama, Arkansas, and Cruz’s native Texas to band together and hold their nominating contests on the same day — Super Tuesday, March 1 — Cruz saw an opportunity to amass delegates and momentum early in the nominating process.”

In other words, there’s still much work to do after Saturday. There will be another day. Cruz could very well be leading the delegate count after March 1. Will the media make a note of it?

Cruz’s people see the polls and admit it looks like second place may be the best they can hope for in South Carolina, but insist the margin won’t be as dramatic as some of the surveys indicate.

If Trump wins as forecasted, he’ll definitely have solidified his place as the race’s frontrunner. It’s kind of hard to believe that a non-traditional first-time candidate like The Donald can run the table, but this year has already provided more than its share of new precedents.

For Ted Cruz, it doesn’t really matter whether he finishes second or even a close third to Marco Rubio in South Carolina. Cruz has been battered by the all-out assaults from Trump and the establishment-backed Rubio for the past few weeks, so he’ll be licking his wounds, assessing his strategy and waiting it out to see where another opportunity will surface.

And it seems likely there will be one at some point. Ted needs to be patient. He’s got the money and the organization for the long-haul. A less than expected finish in South Carolina merely means it might take a little longer to get to the end of the road.

It’s one state, folks. A lot will happen in the next couple months, including some events that we couldn’t possibly anticipate now. If you don’t believe it, just harken back to last Saturday.

Look what Trump’s calling himself these days

Finally today, conservatives have been claiming for a long time that Donald Trump shouldn’t be calling himself a conservative, so he’s complying. But what he’s come up with in its place isn’t exactly descriptive either.

Nick Gass of Politico reports, “In explaining why he is the most reliably conservative candidate running in the Republican primary, Donald Trump on Wednesday hewed tightly to his new favorite phrase: I’m a common-sense conservative.”

It should send up a warning signal whenever a politician starts modifying a label. George W. Bush was a “compassionate conservative,” and now Trump adds “common-sense” to his “conservative.”

What, are the rest of us conservatives without “common-sense?” Is Barack Obama a “common-sense” liberal?

Does “common-sense” mean you’re less conservative? I’m guessing that’s the case.

No matter how you slice it, Donald Trump running as a Republican is problematic. He isn’t conservative and doesn’t seem to add much common-sense either. His more appropriate label would be “whatever I think at the moment-conservative.”

That seems to be more than enough for Trump’s backers.

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Commonsense 'Conservative" is not Commonsense OR Conservative!

Nearest parallel to that description would be the way John Kasich tries to portray himself, and he's neither sensible nor conservative.

With the Supreme Court in the balance, the adoption of such labels or attitudes will make the voters think twice before choosing such a candidate.