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The Ted Cruz-Donald Trump bromance was in full swing at the GOP debate in Vegas on Tuesday night. I half expected the uber macho pair to announce they are starring in a buddy movie: Think "Lethal Weapon," presidential version. I’d combine their names like a political version of Brangelina, Bennifer or Kimye, but it doesn’t quite work (Truz? Crump?) Stop calling them Trumpkins. They’re Crumpkins.
People expected the two current Republican frontrunners, who enjoy the same hardcore base, to go at it. Instead, Trump was practically bursting with affection for Cruz, and the titlefight belonged to Marco Rubio and Cruz, with both landing some punches and Rubio ending up the most damaged, as well as, to a lesser degree, Jeb Bush and Trump (that one’s no contest). It was sort of weird that the two at the top didn’t take any swipes at each other – although Cruz did decline to outright say Trump has the judgment to be president.
The debate mattered, though, a lot; these are reductionist debates. The purpose they serve is to rule people out. The same was true Tuesday. There was no "clear" winner, but there were people who aren’t going to stick around much longer after this one, and others who hurt their cause.
Here are the winners and losers.
Whinier than normal, she is wearing thin. At first a novelty, now she seems like she’s reading a packaged script. She took needling shots at Trump, complained no one was asking her questions, tried to talk over the moderators a few times – to no avail – and played the gender card. She doesn’t have much of a record to run on, and it’s starting to show after the umpteenth rodeo. She didn’t have a memorable moment in the debate either, other than saying she wants to "ghost" Vladimir Putin. There's still a shot at VP. But president? It’s over.
He sounds like a scolding dad, and the "everyone should stop insulting each other" stuff is getting boring. He's not going anywhere. He said – literally – that he wants to punch Russia in the nose, and he still sounded like a wimp. Nice guy, but go back to Ohio.
Huckabee got kicked to the kids’ table and didn’t even win that. Lindsay Graham was funnier. Yes, Lindsay Graham. Huckabee who?
Carson fell asleep for most of the debate (well, kind of). Sleepwalking through debates isn’t cutting it anymore, not post-San Bernardino. The attacked-mom-with-a-hammer stuff was lethal. He's the new Walker and will zero out in the polls soon now. Carson's a good man, but he won’t be president.
Some pundits thought he did well. He had a few moments. Somewhat ironically, he actually does best when he talks about Iraq. But he needed to do more. What people are going to remember most is the body language. He just seems hesitant and weak, especially when Trump endlessly berates him for not being strong. Trump is like a political shark. He sniffs out opponents’ key weakness and makes it stick through relentless repetition. People will just remember Trump saying Jeb is weak and Jeb looking weak, probably. Jeb is a non-starter. Too bad; he would probably be a more thoughtful president than some people give him credit for.
The coughing guy
Who kept coughing throughout the debate? It would suck to be them, as that person takes the place of "the cute guy behind Jake Tapper" in 2015 debate audience notoriety.
If one more candidate whines about not getting asked a question, I am throwing my shoe at the TV. If you don’t get asked a question, it means you’re already an after-thought. Complaining just highlights that fact.
Putin was exposed on the world stage as a duplicitous fraud. Oh, yeah, and Carly Fiorina doesn’t want to talk to him.
While the GOP was talking ISIS, he was chiding them for not blathering about climate change and income equality. He does realize San Bernardino and Paris shifted the national concern and that this was a foreign policy debate, right? As for ISIS, they’re probably thrilled to be the focus of everyone’s attention. If a martian had landed on Earth smack into the middle of the audience, it would have thought ISIS, not Hillary, was running for president.
I thought Cruz was completely obnoxious, talking endlessly over moderators. And I thought the new lines of attack against him by fellow Republicans (notably Rubio and, earlier, Lindsay Graham) are very damaging if they get more play, that being the fact he has been heretofore rather a Rand Paul-style isolationist and a "put civil liberties first" anti-NSA terrorist surveillance guy who also voted to reduce military spending. Ouch.
He’s running in a GOP primary, though, and his "tough guy" Rambo aura might play with some people and obscure those points. He had the most talking time. That would matter more if he didn’t endlessly talk over moderators, making half the viewing audience wish he would shut the blank up. If Cruz is the GOP nominee, the gender gap will be absolutely cavernous, and Hillary wins in a landslide. He misled on his immigration record, ensuring people will be reminded he’s not been as tough on that as he wants people to think. But most people will remember Rubio’s immigration stance more. I don’t think Cruz will go down, but I don’t think he was a clear victor either.
Rubio is charming, handsome, articulate, nuanced and a dream general election candidate for Republicans – but probably too nuanced on immigration to win a GOP primary. Those red meat GOP voters migrating to Truz were just reminded of the Gang of 8. If Rubio had given this exact same performance in a general election, I’d have put him in the winner column. But he’s running in a GOP primary against a couple of fire-breathing, anti-immigrant, anti-establishment insurgents. He’s got the "I am the American dream" stuff down pat, but the others are positioning themselves as the "I will save the American dream" candidates.
He was punched (metaphorically) so much by other candidates that it almost seemed he was the front runner but was bruised. Since Trump is the actual front runner, this helps Trump. I agreed with a lot of what Rubio said, and I think he’s the most electable Republican. But I am assessing his performance through the prism of the GOP primary he needs to win. Rubio is not the frontrunner, not by a long shot. So he couldn’t afford the blows he took on immigration, not with the intensity surrounding that issue. He seems kind of preppy and young compared to cowboy Cruz and brash businessman Trump, too.
They weren’t a circus act like CNBC. No one asked Trump if he thinks Rosie O’Donnell is a dog. But the debate was kind of ... boring. Candidates wiggled around actually answering questions, even after tepid follow ups that were too often dropped.
None of the establishment candidates did well. Cruz and Rubio, the latter of whom I am sure Priebus would vastly prefer, beat each other up. Jeb can’t get any traction. Meanwhile, a fairly sedate Trump sat there, grinning like a Cheshire cat as the others hurt each other. However, it’s still a very strong field, and Trump said he won’t run as an Independent (of course, it’s Trump, so he could take it back).
I said the other day that GOP voters should give him another look. He had a good night even though Rand Paul played the "bridge card" (Paul is so much of an after-thought I forgot to put him in the loser column). Christie has anti-terrorism cred as a former U.S. Attorney. He’s polling well in New Hampshire. Don’t count him out just yet. He helped himself tonight. He called Obama a "feckless weakling."
Don’t laugh, but if you actually watched the kids’ table debate, you would know what I mean. He seemed to have a lot of common sense, to actually get the complexity of the ISIS mess whereas Trump talks bumperstickers (yeah, guess what, Iran and Russia are propping up Assad), and he was funny and memorable. He belongs in the real debate.
It was a substantive debate focused on the issues, and it teased out differences among candidates. Why does Hillary hardly ever debate again?
I don’t think Trump lost, even though he said a few typically crazy Trump things that would sink any other mere mortal. For example, he wants to kill terrorists’ mothers – maybe he should watch the Sopranos; you don’t go after the families! – and he apparently doesn’t get the fact that there is only one Internet, arguing that he wants to shut down "their Internet," referring to Syria and Iraq and places like that. He does, however, want to keep "our" Internet up.
He didn’t dominate. He was kind of sedate, when he wasn’t badgering poor Jeb or defending his insane Muslim ban plan, and he disappeared for long stretches at a time. However, his key challengers (Rubio, Cruz) caused each other some serious damage. That helped Trump. He won the Jeb exchange on style points, if not the actual merits. For the voters who like his binary promises to make us all winners again, this isn’t going to hurt him. I think he missed a chance to define Cruz to voters, though; maybe he calculated it was better to let Rubio do it. But that could end up being a critical mistake.
He’s the front runner, still. He’s Trump. He could say he wants to ban all foreign national Muslims and shut down parts of the Internet and kill terrorists’ mothers and rise 10 points in the polls. Oh wait, he just said all those things. But he’s Trump. So he will probably rise 10 points in the polls. Unless Cruz wins Iowa and he starts to realize how badly all of this is damaging his business brands and ability to make money ...
Jessica McBride spent a decade as an investigative, crime, and general assignment reporter for the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel and is a former City Hall reporter/current columnist for the Waukesha Freeman.
She is the recipient of national and state journalism awards in topics that include short feature writing, investigative journalism, spot news reporting, magazine writing, blogging, web journalism, column writing, and background/interpretive reporting. McBride, a senior journalism lecturer at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee, has taught journalism courses since 2000.
Her journalistic and opinion work has also appeared in broadcast, newspaper, magazine, and online formats, including Patch.com, Milwaukee Magazine, Wisconsin Public Radio, El Conquistador Latino newspaper, Investigation Discovery Channel, History Channel, WMCS 1290 AM, WTMJ 620 AM, and Wispolitics.com. She is the recipient of the 2008 UWM Alumni Foundation teaching excellence award for academic staff for her work in media diversity and innovative media formats and is the co-founder of Media Milwaukee.com, the UWM journalism department's award-winning online news site. McBride comes from a long-time Milwaukee journalism family. Her grandparents, Raymond and Marian McBride, were reporters for the Milwaukee Journal and Milwaukee Sentinel.
Her opinions reflect her own not the institution where she works.