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Cruz on the Spot, Rubio on the Hunt

Jonathan Bernstein is a Bloomberg View columnist. He taught political science at the University of Texas at San Antonio and DePauw University and wrote A Plain Blog About Politics.
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If Thursday night's Republican debate had any effect,  it will have been on Ted Cruz, who has been fading a bit in Iowa polling. He still sits within striking range of Donald Trump, but also may have lost some ground to Marco Rubio.

The three most memorable moments of the Fox News forum were all Cruz moments.

First: He botched an attack on the moderators, something that is hard to do in a Republican debate. Cruz hit this bull's eye a few debates ago, calling out a panel for encouraging fighting among the candidates. This time, however, he bashed the moderators for encouraging attacks only on him. Instead of placing himself and all the candidates on the side of the audience (in the theater and at home), this one just sounded whiny.

Next: The highlight of the debate was a long sequence on immigration, in which Fox had prepared flip-flop video histories, first of Marco Rubio and then of Cruz. The moderators pressed hard on both candidates, and they went after each other, too (with Rand Paul hitting Cruz and Jeb Bush attacking Rubio). It's sometimes difficult to know how these things go over with undecided voters. But overall the framing of the issue by Fox as one of flip-flopping (rather than whether they actually differ with each other on policy), and the extended attacks, seemed to me to at least muddy the picture. And that's presumably very good for Rubio, who is most vulnerable on this issue. 

Then: Cruz received a question on ethanol, and strongly defended his position opposing federal subsidies for it. To my ears, it was one of his best delivered answers of the night, and was certain to play well with libertarians and free-marketers. There are very few of those in Iowa, at least on the subject of corn. Nor are there likely to be many undecided Republicans in the state who are more impressed with Cruz's position on the issue than they are upset about it.  

How does that all add up? It's very late in the game in Iowa -- too late for a bump up after this debate to show up in polling and create the impression of momentum. Still, if Cruz is fading (and the polls aren't certain enough to be able to say that for sure), I didn't see anything on Thursday night to turn it around for him.

As for the rest, Rubio seemed overcaffeinated, but did his usual solid job. Chris Christie continues to huff and puff about terrorism without ever filling in any details. (If lots of Republicans out there really buy the pitch that being governor of New Jersey is the ideal preparation for taking on Islamic State, Christie would be in great shape; the polls suggest otherwise.)

Jeb Bush didn't humiliate himself. Rand Paul did fine, but he's already halfway back to running for re-election in Kentucky, and what he's sharp on (civil liberties) isn't of interest to Republican voters anyway. Ben Carson was his usual non-factor, charmingly reciting the preamble of the Constitution for his closing statement. As with the last debate, I guessed he did well with those inclined to like him, although at this point it appears to be more about his future book sales than anything electoral. 

The Fox moderators did not distinguish themselves. There were more questions about Bill Clinton fooling around (1) than there were about the economy (0) or taxes (0) or jobs (0). Asking a candidate about the polls, as they did, is a waste of everyone's time.  

Oh, there was an undercard debate again. None of them are going anywhere -- except, in the case of Mike Huckabee and Rick Santorum, to the sideshow put on by Donald Trump. Speaking of whom, he wasn't missed on the main stage.

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This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

To contact the author of this story:
Jonathan Bernstein at jbernstein62@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor responsible for this story:
Katy Roberts at kroberts29@bloomberg.net