Anyone watching only the first half of Thursday night’s GOP Presidential debate from North Charleston could be justified in believing Ted Cruz had stolen the show and firmly ensconced himself as the party’s frontrunner.
Within the first few portions of the event broadcast by Fox Business, the Texas senator had successfully quashed the latest attack against him regarding his 2012 senatorial campaign finances (at least for the primaries. If Cruz becomes the Republican nominee, the Democrats are surely going to try to rekindle the issue); had not only defended himself well, but had obliterated Donald Trump on the question of the Texas senator’s Constitutional qualifications to be president; and had provided the partisan crowd the red meat they were looking for in his opening remarks referencing the American sailors recently captured and released by Iran.
Things went so well for Cruz during his first exchange with Trump that he actually had the businessman openly contemplating the pathway, however remote it might be at this point, for Trump to leave the political spotlight, opining that he might just “go back to building buildings.”
Cruz was showing he was not only one of the strongest orators on the stage, but that he had the combination of passion, credentials and issue comprehension many Republicans are saying they are looking for this election cycle.
But then came another round with Trump, this time concerning Cruz’s campaign trail quip about Trump’s “New York values,” and the wheels inexplicably came off the Texas senator’s momentum.
Most comedians will tell you, if you’re having to explain a joke, it’s time to cut bait. But instead of using the moment to shine a spotlight on some of Turmp’s viewpoints that are out of step with the Republican voter, Cruz committed the unforced error by instead sheepishly doubling down on the comment, allowing it to be a shirking disparagement of the Big Apple itself, and by association, its residents.
It was a shocking misstep for the seasoned debater, and not only allowed Trump to avoid defending some his more left-leaning viewpoints, but it also accomplished something no one else has been able to do during this election cycle. Cruz’s comments allowed Trump, even if for just a moment, to appear to be a sympathetic character as the New York City native somberly cited the response of his hometown during 9/11. The exchange left Cruz only with the option to applaud as Trump recalled the aftermath of terrorist attack 15 years ago.
And from that moment on the debate reset itself, almost as if the first half hadn’t happened, opening the door for other candidates to reestablish themselves in the roundtable.
Several of the candidates, previously little more than an afterthought onstage, seized the opportunity. Jeb Bush had moments where he looked like the adult in the room, especially during discussions regarding Muslim immigration. Chris Christie was able to assert his charismatic firebrand campaign style while also getting in digs against Marco Rubio and Cruz, highlighting the difference between gubernatorial executive experience and senatorial legislative experience. Rubio himself grabbed a moment to win a murky exchange with Cruz regarding tax policies and the Texas senators apparent reversal on several issues.
Still, the winner of a debate often is not who makes the most coherent points, but who gets the most discussion afterward. To that end, Cruz is left with a bittersweet result: he won the debate, but in doing so missed one of those rare opportunities on the campaign trail when a candidate can seize the spotlight and actually start to sway voters who previously might not have even been close to considering his candidacy.
Polls in early voting states of Iowa and New Hampshire are showing a close race still open to significant fluctuations. Surely he and his campaign staff will promote the evening as a decisive victory, but if Cruz ends up falling short in these early contests, he might have a moment of quiet reflection, somewhere in the distant future, and think about the North Charleston debate and what might have been.