It doesn’t take a genius to realize that Ted Cruz regularly shines in the debates, such as the one airing tonight on the Fox Business Channel. Cruz has made the most of his opportunities, picking his moments and working them for as much air time as possible, while demonstrating his grasp on both policy and grassroots politics. Politico’s Shane Goldmacher and Katie Glueck sat down with Cruz in order to learn more about the strategy that the Iowa frontrunner has been refining from the first onstage showdown:
“The first couple of debates I sat back and very much let it come to me,” Cruz said aboard his campaign bus in Iowa. But the moderators’ attempts to play the candidates against one another, he said, had left him with “among the least speaking time of any person on that stage.”
So Cruz made a tactical shift. “We made a conscious decision to assert myself more aggressively into the conversation,” he said, “because if every question was going to begin with Candidate A will you please insult Candidate B, I didn’t want to be involved in that. But I also didn’t want to stand there silently for two hours, while others were throwing rocks at each other.”
The results have been stark. After coasting through the early debates with a low profile, Cruz spoke more than any of his rivals in each of the last two debates. In the December CNN contest, Cruz spoke for nearly three minutes more than his closest rival, Donald Trump — 16 minutes and 27 seconds to 13 minutes and 33 seconds, according to POLITICO’s calculations. In November, he lapped his closest foe by one minute and 41 seconds at the Fox Business debate.
As a Senator, he’s also learned the art of the filibuster. In fact, his best example of that comes from the much-lauded FBN debate in November:
In one remarkable sequence in the November debate, Cruz spoke for three minutes and 25 seconds straight, slowed only by a 10-word follow-up from Bartiromo. Later in that same debate, Fox Business’s Neil Cavuto asked Cruz a question and then followed-up twice. The result was Cruz answering questions for a full four minutes straight — without any of his rivals butting in.
Cruz’ rivals might read that and argue that it demonstrates more than just Cruz’ skill. It shows that moderators can try to impose time discipline on stage, but someone with enough skill and chutzpah can still manipulate the rules and the moderators to seize control of the debate. That’s tough to do with nine or ten people on stage, but tonight’s debate will have fewer candidates — seven in the main event. That may give Cruz an even bigger opening to dominate the stage.
Neil Cavuto, who will once again moderate the main debate with Maria Bartiromo, expects to see fireworks on stage given the debate’s proximity to the Iowa caucuses. Excuse me, not “fireworks,” but “grenades”:
But presidential campaigns evolve quickly, and Cavuto believes he and Bartiromo are in different territory tonight when the cable business news network has its second GOP showdown in North Charleston, S.C., at 6 p.m. Pacific time (a free live stream will be available on FoxBusiness.com). With the first party caucus and primary less than a month away, there’s a chance one of the candidates for the Republican nomination will get desperate. Moderators can be part of the collateral damage in such situations.
“They know it’s getting very close,” Cavuto told The Times. “Some of them are going to throw grenades. It’s possible some of them are going to throw grenades at us. Even if Mother Teresa were asking questions they’d throw them at her. The fact of the matter as time runs short a lot of the candidates’ temperament runs short. That’s a whole new dynamic.”
Part of that intensity is due to having the seven leading candidates on stage – the smallest lineup of GOP contenders yet for a main event.
“It’s incumbent on us to stay cool and stay focused and not to take anything personally, recognize these guys are under enormous pressure and so are we,” he said.
The biggest reason to suspect some fireworks isn’t necessarily its lateness in the cycle or the marginally smaller number of candidates on stage. It’s that Cruz and Donald Trump have finally gone on the offensive against each other over Cruz’ status as a natural-born citizen. The moderators will be certain to raise this as a question, and the mystery will be whether Trump backs off this argument or not. He has in the past chosen not to take the bait on attacking his rivals during the televised debate, and in this case he might be advised to steer clear of Cruz’ legal and debating skills in an area where Cruz’ expertise will far outstrip his own. I suspect Trump is smart enough not to get caught onstage having to parry demands from Cruz to explain court precedents.
How about the other candidates? For the most part, Jeb Bush has been focusing on critical national issues such as Marco Rubio’s footwear and height, and Rand Paul has been playing footsie with Cruz’ skeptics rather than going after Trump. Chris Christie can be relied upon to eschew all of the internecine squabbling and go after Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama. If Cruz is the only one pushing back on Trump and Trump declines to engage, expect another easy ride for the national front-runner.
Here’s one signal to watch: How many of the people on stage will start going after Bernie Sanders as well as Hillary Clinton? That’ll be an indicator of just how much draft he’s getting in the campaign now. If Republican candidates start taking aim at Sanders, then they’re seeing his momentum as a real threat to Hillary.