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Fox News Republican Debate in Detroit: Move along, nothing to see here

The popular media narrative of Donald Trump being the semi-inevitable party nominee dominated the lead-up to Thursday night’s 11th Republican presidential debate in Michigan (at the Fox Theater, a National Historic Landmark in downtown Detroit), despite the New Yorker holding only a 93 delegate lead after Super Tuesday.

In their rush to prematurely anoint Trump as the certain winner, journalists and pundits neglect to mention Ted Cruz virtually tied The Donald on Tuesday in terms of delegates won (Trump 237 to 209 for Cruz), preferring instead to focus on the number of states secured by each candidate. To refresh your memory, Trump won Trump and Rubioseven, Cruz three and Marco Rubio won his first contest in Minnesota the other night.

The overall state total is now Trump with ten wins, Cruz four and Rubio with one. John Kasich was close to prevailing in ultra-liberal Vermont on Tuesday night but still came up a couple points shy of Trump.

While it’s true Trump’s victories by and large came in states with high numbers of conservative voters and evangelicals, territory that Cruz theoretically should dominate, Trump also benefitted from open primaries in several of those states which allowed Democrats and independents to vote.

Participation from non-Republicans likely made a measureable difference in the results and little attention has been paid to that aspect of the primary process thus far. Ted Cruz has done very well in states where only Republicans are allowed to vote in the party primary – Texas and Oklahoma being two of them.

So aside from the “nasty” tone the campaign has taken on for the past couple months, delegate counts weighed heavily on everyone’s minds as the four remaining candidates took the stage in Detroit.

(Note: Ben Carson is technically still in the race but will semi-officially be out on Friday. Carson did not take part in Thursday night’s debate, but he’s been so quiet throughout the other forums, I’m not sure anyone noticed.)

One of the interesting “sideshow” questions going into the event was how Donald Trump would handle being questioned by Fox News’ Megyn Kelly, who along with Chris Wallace and Bret Baier once again moderated the debate (their third this cycle). Trump’s well-publicized feud with Kelly is now a half-year old, and it even caused him to skip the final debate before the Iowa caucuses.

Not this time. The first several questions to Trump were dished out by Wallace and Baier, so the “confrontation” between the two media stars didn’t come until quite a while into the program. Kelly started off with three video instances of Trump contradicting himself…and the discussion was mostly civil, all things considered.

Kelly was tough on Trump too. She repeatedly questioned him over the pending court case involving his Trump University. Trump didn’t back down but he didn’t fully answer the questions either.

The Donald didn’t throw out any personal insults in Kelly’s direction at least. I wouldn’t be at all surprised to see him talk about Kelly again in the coming days, but for a couple hours on Thursday night, everything seemed fine between them.

Of course the other leading “sideshow” mystery on Thursday night was to what extent the increasingly desperate Marco Rubio would go after Donald Trump. Rubio drew rave reviews for attacking The Donald in last week’s debate which certainly endeared him to the pundit class for providing numerous “look at that!” moments, but if Super Tuesday was any indication, Rubio’s antics don’t appear to have won him much additional support from the voters.

In the week since, Rubio’s made fun of the size of Trump’s hands as well as his hair, failed business ventures and misspelled Tweets. His low blows have gotten so bad that even Fox News’s Sean Hannity accused the Republican establishment of putting Rubio up to it. Supposedly Fox News has had it with Rubio – so there was another interesting dynamic at play.  

The pounding continued in Detroit, with Rubio savaging Trump time and again, specifically on his lack of “seriousness” on foreign policy, lack of specifics in proposals and his untrustworthiness in dealing with his own businesses.

Rubio’s strongest point of the night involved Trump’s clothing line (which apparently is made in China and Mexico) and the New Yorker’s hiring of foreign workers to operate his high-end club in Florida.

Rubio said poignantly, “When you have had chances to help American workers you make your clothes overseas and you hire people from overseas.” The crowd roared, appreciating both the truth and timing of the statement.

Of course Rubio didn’t mention his own complicity in bringing in foreign workers through his Gang of Eight immigration bill, which would have greatly increased legal immigration as well as granting amnesty to illegal border-crossers.

Or the fact that under his nose, Disney brought in cheap foreign workers -- and the company even forced its laid-off employees to train their own replacements.

Meanwhile, perhaps the best and most effective moment of the debate came from Ted Cruz, when he turned to Trump and stated, “Donald Trump has written checks to Hillary Clinton 10 times. He wrote four checks to Hillary Clinton’s presidential campaign in 2008. Why did you do it?

Cruz was basically making the ultimate electability argument. How is Trump going to handle it when it’s brought up in a general election debate that he not only contributed to a long list of Democrats but to Hillary herself when she ran for president in 2008?

It’s an interesting question.

I’m not one of the people saying it would be an electoral disaster to nominate Trump – that’s an argument the establishment makes to try and scare people into voting for a candidate whom they approve of. They’ll use that same line of persuasion against conservatives like Ted Cruz as well.

But there’s no question that Trump has a lot to answer for in a general election setting. How will he get out of not talking specifics in policy? How will he answer for his contributions to the Clintons on a regular basis?

The “beating” he takes from his fellow Republicans pales in comparison to what he’ll endure under the hostile eyes of the media and the Democrats.

The bottom line: I don’t think there was anything about Thursday night’s debate that will radically change the course of the race. For those who have been paying attention, it was basically a grand restatement of all the candidates’ positions through two solid hours of one minute soundbites.

Kasich portrayed himself as the “adult in the room.” Rubio was the self-appointed attack dog of the establishment. Cruz is the smartest guy in the race, thoroughly knowledgeable in all things policy and principle. And Trump is… well, Trump.

Through six-plus months of intensive study, I still haven’t found the silver bullet that will slay Trump’s candidacy.

People who like him, like him. As Cruz correctly stated, 60-70% of Republican voters are against him. But of those 30-40% who like him, they’re with him to the end.

Trump talks about “winning” states, but it’s really all about the delegates now

During Thursday’s debate, Donald Trump once again repeated his oft-used argument that he “wins” all the time and cited, of course, his successful streak of states claimed thus far in the campaign.

But as mentioned above, it’s not just about having the highest vote total in states – it is collecting delegates that really count in the end.

I’m guessing that all of the remaining candidates have mapped out delegate strategies, but the Ted Cruz campaign is taking it one step further, assessing his strengths in each state, concentrating on those that are in play and even those that apportion delegates by congressional district.

It all starts with this Saturday’s next round of primaries in states that would seem to be very promising for Ted.

Katie Glueck of Politico reports, “Cruz’s backers see immediate opportunities for him to rack up his delegate count here in deeply conservative Kansas, as well as in Louisiana and Kentucky, all of which vote on Saturday. Cruz won the Louisiana GOP caucuses on Tuesday, a nonbinding exercise ahead of the state’s primary, but one that offers evidence of an effective organization…

“Given the fluidity of the race, Cruz is aiming to make a stand in most if not all of them (March 15 states), at least over the course of the next week, seeing opportunities to run up the margins in conservative areas, boosted by staff that the campaign has on the ground in each state.”

Once again, the vaunted Cruz ground game is out in force to gather every last potential vote.

By the numbers, 155 delegates are at stake on Saturday. If Cruz wins in Kansas, Louisiana and Kentucky, he could be virtually tied with Trump by the end of the day. Glueck’s article indicates he’s even hoping to compete in liberal Maine, since it’s a caucus state and will depend on the most motivated of participants.

Then there’s the open/closed primary factor to consider.

Todd Zywicki of the Washington Post reports, “Although the media are looking forward to March 15, this Saturday (March 5) there are four Republican primaries/caucuses: Kansas, Kentucky, Louisiana and Maine. All are closed.

“Then, once the winner-takes-all states begin, a large number of those are closed primaries and caucuses as well (including Florida, for what it’s worth).”

No one’s claiming that Cruz is competitive everywhere, especially with Rubio and Kasich still in the race. But the point is, Trump’s delegate count doesn’t yet make him inevitable. And if he loses three out of four states on Saturday, it will be Cruz with the most momentum heading into the big winner-take-all states.

Could it be that some of Trump’s voters won’t be so self-assured now that it looks like Trump isn’t a shoo-in?

Cruz of course made the pitch on Thursday night that he’s the only candidate who’s proven he can beat Trump consistently and therefore he should be the one to compete one-on-one with The Donald. Rubio robotically repeated that he’s the best one to defeat Trump, but does anyone believe him?

The delegate count after Saturday may ultimately put Rubio out of business, leading him to merely argue he’ll prevail in a contested convention setting. That would be his only hope.

John Kasich jokingly said he expects to be the nominee. Everyone laughed – heck, even he chuckled a bit.

But when push comes to shove, Cruz really is the only one who still has a shot to knock off Trump. His best states may have been front-loaded on the primary calendar, but he’s the only candidate with the background to rally the grassroots and possibly beat Trump on his own turf – as an “outsider” alternative to Washington.

Kasich has too many ties to the Washington establishment and embraced Medicaid expansion in Ohio. For Rubio, there’s the Gang of Eight.

Cruz doesn’t have any of that type of baggage. The only thing his opponents can use against Ted is his lack of popularity in Washington with his peers. In 2016, that’s not necessarily a bad thing.

Romney hit Trump hard on Thursday and he wasn’t even in Michigan

Another interesting thing about Thursday night’s debate concerned someone who wasn’t even in Michigan. As I’m sure everyone’s heard by now, Mitt Romney delivered a blistering attack on Trump earlier in the day at the University of Utah and it was clear that Romney’s words hung heavily in the air as the proceedings got underway in Detroit.

Nicole Duran of the Washington Examiner reports, “Mitt Romney warned Thursday that picking Donald Trump as the Republican nominee for the presidency would doom Republicans and greatly reduce the chances of American prosperity in the future.

“’Let me put in very plainly. If we Republicans choose Donald Trump as our nominee, the prospects for a safe and prosperous future are greatly diminished…There is plenty of evidence that Mr. Trump is a con man, a fake. Mr. Trump has changed his positions not just over the years, but over the course of the campaign.’”

What Romney said is basically just a repetition of what Rubio’s already been arguing on the campaign trail, but it’s quite shocking to hear the former Republican nominee talk in such a way about the man who could easily head the party in November.

Romney didn’t use those types of cut-to-the-bone words to describe Obama in 2012. If he had, he might be president today.

Naturally this year’s candidates weren’t going to let Trump get a pass on his past dealings and if Thursday night is any indication, the assaults will continue.

Particularly instructive was the rather lengthy back-and-forth between Rubio, Trump and Megyn Kelly regarding Trump University, which Rubio took the occasion to label Trump as a con man who tricked people out of their money for no benefit.

Trump tried to change the subject, saying the Better Business Bureau gave an “A” grade to Trump University. Kelly refuted the notion, saying the last grade she saw was a D- and even read a quote which contradicted what Trump was saying.

Again, the details are out there somewhere and only someone who’s spent considerable time could determine where the truth actualy lies. But together with what Romney said earlier about Trump it perhaps plants a seed of doubt in some people’s minds about Trump’s ability to recall – and willingness to tell the truth.

Trump’s mouth is his biggest asset and his own worst enemy at the same time. The fact he can’t seem to remember what he says at any given moment isn’t helping him.

I personally don’t think Trump is a serial liar. But he certainly gives the impression that something just ain’t right with many of his business dealings.

If he’s the nominee, the Democrats are going to hit him hard on all these issues. He could very well end up a shell of his former self by the time he’s done.

Trump’s tax returns, the issue that won’t go away

One of the issues Romney first brought up in regards to Trump was releasing his tax returns. The matter came up during last week’s debate and The Donald dismissed it by saying he’s under audit and has been for the past twelve years – and that he won’t release any returns until the audit is complete.

Trump’s explanation may work with his supporters but many others aren’t convinced. Ted Cruz and Marco Rubio released theirs last weekend.

When will Trump do the same? And if he doesn’t, what should happen?

John Fund of National Review makes a suggestion, “If Donald Trump won’t release his tax returns prior to the GOP convention, the delegates pledged to him on the first ballot should abstain from giving him their votes. Other than their vote not counting, there are no realistic consequences for any delegate doing so on the first ballot.”

Fund explains in his story that delegates aren’t necessarily bound to vote for the winners of their states. It’s complicated and would cause quite a stir.

But there’s little doubt something needs to be done.

While the tax return issue wasn’t specifically raised on Thursday night, the greater subject of Trump’s business dealings was a major focus – especially for Rubio.

Early in the program Marco questioned Trump’s success, claiming he inherited over $200 million from his father. To this, Trump replied, “This little guy has lied so much about my record” and proceeded to deride Rubio throughout the evening with taunts of “little Marco” this and “little Marco” that.

People are getting tired of the act – at least I am.

Trump called Cruz a liar too – “Lyin’ Ted” – for pointing out truthful aspects of The Donald’s past and for calling on Trump to release the transcript from his “off the record” interview with the New York Times on immigration.

The issue of the tax returns, Trump’s questionable business dealings and his “flexibility” on negotiating over immigration undermines his credibility.

But again, does it matter to his ardent supporters? Probably not.

Cruz and Rubio observe ceasefire in order to target Trump

Finally today, the twelfth and final Republican presidential debate is set for next Thursday night in Miami, Florida, Marco Rubio’s home turf. Based on the deterioration of the level of discourse we’ve witnessed over the past several weeks, it’s probably good that the series is coming to an end.

While there’s still a lot left to discuss regarding the candidates’ various positions on issues, I’m not sure there’s much more to accomplish by continuing to feature the contenders in this type of format.

Ted Cruz and Marco Rubio both got their digs in at Trump and the frontrunner retaliated in kind, but the real losers in the end are the voters.

For pure entertainment value, it’s kind of fun to see the candidates peck at each other. But as Rubio pointed out, politics is supposed to be a serious business (of course he was one of the biggest reasons why these debates have devolved into a verbal slug-fest).

But Cruz and Rubio are also largely avoiding attacking each other. Perhaps it’s cooperation, or maybe it’s just plain boredom. Been there, done that.

What else is there to say, really?

The Fox News Michigan debate probably won’t be remembered as consequential for much at all. Conservatives clearly have a choice in the matter – we’ll see how it works out on Saturday and beyond.

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Problem for Cruz is he only has one Texas.