Final thoughts on the debate from the stage: Cruz wins at the close

Last night, Townhall Media held a party on the main stage at CPAC, and invited a couple thousand of our friends to join us in watching the final (for now, anyway) Fox News presidential debate. Guy Benson moderated our panel, which included Katie Pavlich, Mary Katharine Ham, Leon Wolf, and myself as analysts prior to and during the debate in the commercial breaks. As I mentioned in my earlier CPAC post, Mark McKinnon and a crew from Showtime’s The Circus dropped in to shoot some footage, and it couldn’t have been more appropriate, since the debate itself turned out to be quite a circus as well. From penis size to fraud to insults about height and stubby fingers, the Fox News debate had everything including the elephants.

Let’s face it — the “He hit my hands” moment is destined for debate immortality, or at least infamy:

It also had plenty of substance and drama, too, along with a lot of talk about process and polling. Ted Cruz took advantage of an opening provided by Donald Trump’s bragging about the polls to make the point that the same polls he cites shows Trump to be the weakest option in a general election:

Both Cruz and Marco Rubio spent the evening hammering Trump, who weathered most of the attacks with insults toward his two most competitive rivals. Rubio began the night aggressively attacking Trump and then cutting off his counterattacks by talking over them; Cruz warmed up to the task, attempting to remain presidential. Those attacks may have scored best when it came to Trump University and allegations of fraud, a point reinforced by moderator Megyn Kelly’s research on the topic. As Leon noted prior to the debate, Trump’s business acumen is both his biggest selling point and his largest vulnerability, and Rubio kept pressing the “con man” attack all night long. It clearly got Trump flustered, perhaps the only time in the debate where he looked worried, and had no success in changing the topic through “little Marco” and “lying Ted” insults.

However, the point in which the Cruz-Rubio tag team succeeded most in showing Trump as unready for the job was in the all-too-brief portion of the debate that focused on foreign policy. After slamming Trump as a dilettante who hadn’t bothered to learn the most rudimentary concepts of American foreign policy and who keeps making a habit of praising Vladimir Putin, Trump initially denied he’d done so — and then wondered aloud, “Wouldn’t it be nice to get along with Russia?” (Maybe we can send them a reset button, eh?) Unfortunately for Cruz and Rubio, presidential elections rarely hinge on foreign policy, so this may not end up doing too much damage to Trumpmentum.

Overall though, the pair scored repeatedly and did what they needed, especially in the Trump U discussion. Rubio showed that he won’t back down or be intimidated by Trump, as did Cruz. However, Cruz seemed to master the art of doing so while maintaining the presidential mien, scolding Donald as a professor would a truculent student, and on occasion instructing him to “breathe!” before talking. Both did well, but Ted Cruz won the debate overall.  Cruz absolutely killed it at the close in this regard, especially with his warnings about Supreme Court nominations and trust. Whether that means anything in terms of Trump actually losing any votes is another matter (prediction: no), but it’s worth pointing out that all four of tomorrow’s primaries are closed — only registered Republicans can vote in them. That might help both Cruz and Rubio, who need a day in which Trump doesn’t win pretty badly at this point.

One last note about John Kasich is worth making, too. He managed to step outside the circus and make himself look much more palatable for those desiring a traditional presidential option. That may not be enough for Kasich to suddenly surge elsewhere, but it might make a difference in Ohio, where he’s hoping to grab 66 delegates in the winner-take-all primary on March 15th. Given the dynamics of the delegate count now, that could look like a win for Cruz and maybe even Rubio. Kasich had a good debate, and thanks to the dwindling number of candidates on stage, got an opportunity to speak more at length and focus on himself rather than Trump.

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David Strom 9:21 PM on February 02, 2023