The best part here is the footage from his press conference yesterday, when not only is he asked if he saw footage of American Muslims in NJ celebrating on 9/11 — “yes” without missing a beat — but one of the reporters actually tries to help him out by asking again in a follow-up question, “In New Jersey?” (They didn’t bother pressing him on Trump’s claim that it was “thousands and thousands” there who were cheering.) Answer: Yes again, without hesitation. Then, a few hours later with Megyn Kelly: Nope, he only saw footage of Muslims abroad celebrating. How do you answer that question one way twice and then answer it the other way a few hours later? Even if, as Carson says, he didn’t fully understand why the media was asking him this because he hadn’t heard what Trump said, his antenna should have been up when when reporters started asking him about Muslims. This is a guy, remember, who’s already spent a few news cycles being grilled on that topic. He didn’t give ground when defending his position that an observant Muslim is unqualified to be president, just as Trump isn’t giving ground now. I wonder if Carson will suffer pollwise for having the integrity to correct himself here when it means siding with the media (sort of) in their dispute with Trump over whether there’s a huge fifth column of New Jersey Muslims or not.

But that’s almost academic. Realistically, Carson’s done now that Cruz has begun to rise in Iowa. Unless Iowa evangelical leader Bob Vander Plaats shocks everyone by endorsing him over Cruz, it’s hard to imagine Carson rebounding in the polls the way Trump did after Carson briefly nudged past him last month. Cruz is a stronger candidate in every way — more polish, more experience, better organized, far better versed in policy. If Carson had a clear advantage over him in terms of his social conservative credentials, as Huckabee did over his rivals in 2008 and Santorum did in 2012, that alone might be enough to neutralize Cruz. But he doesn’t. His significance in the race as voters start to get serious — which, per David Byler, should start around two weeks after Thanksgiving — is less likely to be as a true contender than as the one guy out there who might conceivably spoil Cruz’s bid. If Trump’s GOTV effort is better than everyone expects, you can sort of imagine a Trump 32, Cruz 28 outcome in Iowa, with 10 percent of evangelicals, say, stubbornly sticking with Carson instead of Cruz just because they prefer his humble non-politician approach. If Cruz wins anyway, then instead Carson’s legacy is likely to be “the Michele Bachmann of the 2016 cycle.” Bummer.

What will Trump’s legacy be, though? I was thinking last night that if Cruz goes on to win the nomination, Trump will probably be remembered as the guy who taught center-righties to learn to live with the idea of nominating Cruz just because he’s so much more palatable politically than Trump is. Without Trump in the race, Cruz would be getting attacked as the unelectable ogre who must be stopped at all costs lest his “tone” destroy the party’s chances next year. As it is, Cruz is the one who’s (obliquely) lecturing Trump on “tone” and refusing to rule out legalizing illegals who are already in the United States. He’s using Trump as a foil to frame himself as a kinda sorta “reasonable” alternative to undecideds just in case we end up with Trump and Cruz as the final two. I also wonder if the part of conservative media that’s been defending Trump consistently (e.g., Rush et al.) won’t end up explaining themselves in those terms in the end — that this was never really about Trump but was always about maximizing the chances of the true conservative, Ted Cruz. Cruz might not be able to beat a true center-rightist like Rubio head to head, but as the other guy in a “Trump versus Not Trump” race? He’ll have no problem winning. The more that can be done now to boost Trump (especially if he ends up winning New Hampshire), the more likely a “Trump versus Not Trump” race becomes, with Cruz, as the presumptive Iowa winner, in the “Not Trump” role. And before you say, “But Cruz wants Trump’s voters!”, remember that plenty of polls have showed that the second choice of Trump fans is varied — some like Carson, some Rubio, some Cruz, etc. Cruz wants Trump’s voters if he ends up facing Rubio for the nomination. But I’d bet cash money that if you gave him a choice between facing Rubio with Trump’s voters and facing Trump with everyone else’s voters, he’ll take door number two. Every time.