I don’t know why I watched last night’s Republican presidential debate when I could have followed Donald Trump’s lead in discussing any newsworthy moment. When asked about Ted Cruz’s failure to disclose a loan from Goldman Sachs during his first Senate campaign, Mr. Trump offered an irrefutable assessment: “I know nothing about it. But I hear it’s a very big thing.”
Few expected the sixth gathering of the GOP candidates to be a very big thing, and I don’t think it shook up the race, as the cliché goes. Ted Cruz had the confidence of a candidate on the rise, and his genial/tough Ronald Reagan imitation keeps him in place as the main rival to poll leader Donald Trump. For most of the debate, hosted by the Fox Business Channel and held in Charleston, S.C., the other five candidates largely ignored Cruz, instead trying to outdo each other in criticizing President Obama and describing the horrors that would result from a Hillary Clinton presidency—understandable in a Republican primary but perhaps not the best way to break out of a crowded field.
Marco Rubio was the most excitable candidate on stage, taking every opportunity to indict Obama as someone who “doesn’t believe in the free-enterprise system” and who believes that America “needs to be cut down to size.” His strategy seems to be to break out of the pack of four “establishment” candidates (along with Jeb Bush, Chris Christie and John Kasich) by being the angriest and most conservative of the four, which means giving up his former reputation as perhaps the most optimistic Republican candidate. Mr. Christie did not appreciate being Mr. Rubio’s foil—disputing charges that he was soft on gun control and Planned Parenthood—and accused Mr. Rubio of going negative on the advice of his political handlers. (This was the same comeback that Marco Rubio used against Jeb Bush in an earlier debate, so Mr. Rubio shouldn’t have been so surprised by it.)
Chris Christie was the unflappable tough guy, saying of President Obama, “This is a guy who just believes that law enforcement are the bad guys” and condemning the president for not enforcing immigration or marijuana laws. (Is going after marijuana the best strategy for someone whose candidacy is totally dependent on doing well in New Hampshire?) Jeb Bush, as in past debates, receded in the background for long stretches, but he took on the burden of challenging Donald Trump, reaffirming his opinion that Mr. Trump’s plan to ban Muslims from entering the United States is “unhinged” and will make it impossible to work with allies in the Middle East. You could characterize Mr. Bush as either peevish or admirably persistent; he depends the most on New Hampshirites entering the voting booth as if they’re rousing themselves from a fever dream.
As for Mr. Trump, he has proven over the past half-year that there is no penalty for running out the clock with blustery incoherence. Most of the other contenders have remarked on his bad manners but have not challenged his boarding-school-boy simplistic view of the world—except for Rand Paul, shut out of last night’s debate because his poll numbers are an embarrassment to the idea that there’s a libertarian wing of the Republican Party.
But Ted Cruz had the best night, especially at the beginning. The night couldn’t have been better scripted for him, as he stuck to an imitation of Ronald Reagan that included his outrage of Iranians forcing American soldiers “to their knees” (shades of 1980!), his smiling dismissal of The New York Times and its “hit piece” on his loan from Goldman Sachs and his reply to a question (which elicited boos from the audience) about whether he’s a natural-born citizen eligible to be president: “Well, I’m glad we’re focusing on the important issues this evening.”
Ted Cruz got the better of Donald Trump in a six-minute exchange about whether being born to an American mother in Canada makes him a natural-born citizen, saying that Mr. Trump was only raising the issue because Ted Cruz was rising in the polls. (Trump shrugged and admitted this.) Mr. Cruz then pointed out that Mr. Trump’s mother was born in Scotland, which isn’t really an analogous situation, so that he could end with the Reaganesque line, “I’m not going to use your mother’s birth against you.”
After almost all the other candidates tried to outdo each other in opposing gun control, Mr. Cruz said, “everyone is going to say they support the Second Amendment [in a Republican primary] unless you’re clinically insane,” then took credit for stopping gun control legislation in the Senate. He defended his charge that Mr. Trump represents “New York values” by observing dryly, “Not a lot of conservatives come out of Manhattan. I’m just saying.” When Donald Trump then inevitably invoked the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, Mr. Cruz had enough sense to applaud the description of heroic New Yorkers in case the camera landed on him (it did).
In his closing statement, Ted Cruz dropped the folksy demeanor to condemn “political correctness” and declare, “This will end” when he’s president. He addressed any American soldiers who might be watching, saying “I will have your back.” Mr. Cruz didn’t need to throw out a lot of statistics when his chief opponent was Donald Trump; he only had to be clear, concise, and deft in his use of humor. The other five candidates can hope that Mr. Trump’s lead in the polls is a mirage, but they’re not going to get past Ted Cruz easily.