Thursday night’s debate isn’t going to change the polls. Donald Trump will remain on top nationally and slightly ahead in Iowa. And he will maintain his wide lead in New Hampshire.
Ted Cruz will remain in second place with a decent chance of taking Iowa.
And the rest of the pack will stay largely where they are with Rubio in third place, and representing the strongest option that the GOP establishment is offering this cycle.
But what is new from after Thursday night’s debate is the possibility of a Trump/Cruz alliance as we move through the primaries. Indeed, for the first time Trump floated the idea of taking Cruz as his vice president. Cruz didn’t say no. And when Cruz suggested that Trump could be his vice president, Trump said “I don’t think so” which turned into a laugh and they moved on.
A Cruz/Trump ticket would combine a lot of what GOP voters are looking for – and they would condense much of the vote. To be sure, there would be many who would be disappointed and disillusioned by such a ticket: having South Carolina Governor Nikki Haley deliver the rebuttal to the State of the Union address and talk of a brokered convention indicates that there are those opposed to a firebrand anti-establishment ticket.
But that doesn’t mean that the two frontrunners aren’t resonating strongly with GOP voters. When Trump said that he’d gladly “accept the mantle of anger” he got huge applause. Voters are angry. Trump and Cruz get that. And they obviously see potential in one another.
For his part, Trump put in a very strong performance. He was compelling on trade with China and especially in rebutting Cruz’s attack on “New York values” by making it clear that “New York values” are about the spirit which took over the city in the wake of 9/11 when we came together in the face of the worst terrorist attack ever on U.S. soil.
And Cruz adeptly handled Trump’s birther attack and questions about the loan he took out in 2012 that he failed to report. Just like in the last debate, Cruz was able to turn digs against him into attacks on the mainstream media and liberals. No doubt that goes over well with GOP primary voters.
Marco Rubio had another good night. He is the strongest in the field on foreign policy, offering a compelling vision for America’s place in the world and razor sharp attacks on President Obama and Secretary Clinton’s leadership over the last seven years. While he champions much of what other candidates also support, he does it with a dexterity and passion that’s missing from the others. His attacks on the other candidates – especially Cruz – also reflect that passion.
Ben Carson fell largely flat. He is still very weak on foreign policy, despite clearly having studied up on the Middle East and our policies there.
Where he did shine, though, was on his explication of American values and the importance of unity. He called out secular progressives for hurting the character and success of the nation, a point that will continue to resonate with primary voters. But it ultimately won’t change his standing.
Jeb Bush gave another lackluster performance where he often seemed sad. He whined that he needed his turn and he espoused many of the same ideas as the others, but with less enthusiasm and vigor. Trump was certainly right about tonight’s Jeb Bush: he was low energy.
Chris Christie had another strong performance that should keep him as an option in New Hampshire, but is unlikely to move him nationally or in Iowa. He may well be after the attorney general spot now – and he could possibly get it. His no nonsense attitude and reputation as a guy who gets things done is appealing and he has a substantive record that he can point to.
John Kasich made his presence felt more so than in previous debates, but is unlikely to gain any traction. He could end up a vice presidential pick as has great executive experience and brings Ohio, but we’re a long way off from that becoming a reality. For now, he will remain on the perimeter.
And we’ll also see if Trump and Cruz were serious in alluding to the possibility of an alliance. For all the bickering, these two are master gamers and this could be just what they’re cooking up.