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Presidential Horse Race 2016: Ted Cruz puts Marco Rubio on the ropes in CNN Las Vegas debate

LAS VEGAS, NV – It could be said that if you really want to get far away from reality, Las Vegas is the place to go. The ultimate adult playground located in an otherwise uninhabitable desert is home to a variety of entertainments for people to experience, usually contained within huge themed hotels erected on foundations of the wealth extracted from those who visit them.

CNN Republican debateIn that sense, it was perhaps ironic that one of those hotels, The Venetian, was chosen to host the fifth Republican presidential debate on Tuesday night. The seriousness of the occasion was in stark contrast to the elaborate glittering façade located just outside the auditorium.

With the radical Islamic terrorist attacks in Paris last month and San Bernardino last week (and the false terrorist bomb threat that shut down the LA School District on Tuesday), people aren’t in the mood to hear rhetorical fluff from politicians. If you want more posturing and pandering, try listening to an Obama speech or press briefing.

Reality was present for the nine Republicans participating in the main event, however, starting with the candidates’ opening statements.

Ted Cruz began with “America is at war. Our enemy is radical Islamic terrorism.”

Donald Trump used his opening remarks to talk about the conversations he’s started within the party and our country. It was a good summation of his candidacy.

The discussion was serious with very few memorable one-liners. There were several tense exchanges as well, with the back-and-forth between Trump and Jeb Bush probably being the closest to a real “fight.”

“Donald Trump, you’re not going to be able to insult your way to the presidency,” Bush said a few minutes into the event. Time and again Bush returned to the “he’s not a serious candidate” theme in referring to Trump.

It made Bush look good with the establishment-heavy crowd, which applauded Bush and Rubio frequently while staying silent for Trump and Ted Cruz on several of their answers.  

All in all, it was a very substantive debate that revealed clear distinctions between some of the candidates on the most important issue of this year’s election. CNN’s moderators did try and pit the candidates against each other, but in helpful ways. We need to hear about Marco Rubio’s immigration views. We need to hear about Rand Paul’s foreign policy thoughts. Ditto for Ben Carson, who showed a much greater grasp of the foreign sphere with his comments.

CNN did the GOP a huge kindness on Tuesday night

I think CNN did all the Republican candidates a favor by focusing almost exclusively on national security, immigration and foreign policy. If only they’d thrown in taxes it would have made for a perfect GOP storm.

The country is clearly concerned with threats foreign and domestic right now. Every one of the candidates had an opportunity to explain where they stand on national security and the field plainly breaks down into two groups: the realists versus the hawks (neocons).

Realists are Donald Trump, Ted Cruz, Rand Paul and Ben Carson (not coincidentally, the “outsider” candidates). Hawks are the rest of them, led by Marco Rubio. Chris Christie was perhaps the most bellicose of them all, saying he would definitely shoot down a Russian plane if it violated his proposed no-fly zone over Syria.

Looking stunned at Christie’s assertion, Rand Paul retorted, “If you’re in favor of World War III, you have your candidate.” The audience gasped, of course. The camera showed Paul standing right next to Christie as he said it. Paul also mentioned Christie’s Achilles heel – “Bridgegate.” Very interesting.

Paul also took off after Marco Rubio on a number of topics, most especially on bulk collection of telephone data and the necessity of regime change in the Middle East. Together, Paul and Ted Cruz made a very effective two-pronged attack on the Florida senator.

Rubio had probably his worst debate yet, looking shaky on immigration and even unsure of himself on the need for greatly beefing up the military.

Marco may not have been sweating like he did during the Reagan library debate in September, but he also appeared like he was looking for the exit at times.

Like she did in September during the first CNN debate, Carly Fiorina rattled off a number of facts concerning building up the military, clearly placing herself in the neocon camp. She keeps citing her record of leadership as CEO of Hewlett-Packard as a reason to choose her, but there isn’t really anything there that the average person can latch onto.

But again, conservatives got a good look at where each candidate stands on protecting America.

How did the candidates treat Donald Trump?

Donald Trump said near the end of the debate that he was ready to commit fully to the Republican Party (meaning, no third-party run), which somewhat contradicts what he’d said earlier about not being treated fairly with the questions.

But with his big lead in the polls, some attacks were to be expected.

If the recently released Monmouth poll is to be believed, for example, Trump entered the Las Vegas debate with support nearly three times larger than his nearest competitor.

Americans have responded to Trump’s controversial proposals with favor and enthusiasm. Many still don’t like him personally, but they’re grateful he’s spoken out against politically correct notions that are not only endangering our security, they’re threatening the concept of American exceptionalism.

Trump has often warned his fellow competitors and the establishment media that he would consider leaving the party if he wasn’t treated with respect and fairness.

Well naturally, right from the get-go those “friendly” notions went right out the window in the “Happy Hour” debate. In his opening statement, George Pataki called Trump’s proposal to temporarily halt Muslim immigration “un-American and absurd.” Pataki followed it up in a subsequent answer by saying, “Donald Trump is the Know-nothing candidate of the twenty-first century and can’t be President of the United States.”

Lindsey Graham joined in the Trump-bashing, claiming The Donald’s ideas would offend Muslim allies in the Middle East like the King of Jordan. Graham then apologized to the Muslim world for Trump’s rhetoric.

If ever there was an example of why conservatives can’t stand Lindsey Graham, this was it.

In the main debate, Trump was also the target of frequent attacks, but took it well. He explained his reluctance to intervene in the Middle East with a very pragmatic answer. “We’ve spent $4 trillion on wars in the Middle East, sacrificed thousands of lives and we’ve gained nothing.”

“Just think of all the roads we could have built, schools…hospitals. We need that money here.” It’s a very similar argument to the one Ron Paul made in 2012.

The hawks jumped all over him for it but the point was made – and it’s an argument that’s resonating with the voters, too.

Marco Rubio’s wide open borders and national security

One of the big mysteries going into the evening was whether Marco Rubio was finally going to be asked about his leadership in the notorious Gang of Eight which tried to change America forever in one broad sweep by granting blanket amnesty to millions of illegal aliens.

For a man who regards himself as strong on national security, Rubio’s glaring weakness on the issue of immigration – directly related to national security – is an inherent contradiction.

All along, Rubio has associated hawkish foreign policy with strength on national security, ignoring the fact he favored allowing in massive numbers of immigrants without any kind of real means to check their backgrounds. Isn’t that the definition of dangerous?

Rubio was finally queried about his leadership in the Gang on Tuesday night. As expected, Marco tried to talk his way out of it by saying he learned a lesson in 2013 – namely, that the American People want border security first.

Cruz and Paul weren’t about to let him get away with it.

Paul said (paraphrasing), “Marco gets it completely wrong. We’re not safer through the bulk collection of records. We’re not getting specific information on the real threats. The real issue is we need stricter controls on who comes here. Marco has opposed any new border security requirements. He’s the weakest of all the candidates on immigration. He has more of an allegiance to Chuck Schumer and the liberals than any conservative policy.”

Ouch. There’s been a lot of talk about Trump and Cruz having an alliance, but what about Cruz and Paul?

Cruz hit hard on the amnesty charge as well. Again, paraphrasing, “Rubio has attempted to muddy the waters. There was a battle over amnesty. Rubio chose to support amnesty. I chose to stand with Jeff Sessions and Steve King to secure the border.

“Border security is national security. If I’m elected president we will secure the border. We’ll build a wall that works and we’ll get Donald Trump to pay for it.”

The audience laughed. Cruz used humor to emphasize the point. Marco Rubio is vulnerable on immigration and that was very clear on Tuesday night.

Ben Carson needed a good night – he got it

Most of the candidates haven’t moved much in the polls in the past couple months. Depending on which surveys you look at, Donald Trump has gained a few points nationally. Ted Cruz has shot up in Iowa. Marco Rubio has ticked up a little as the emerging establishment candidate. And Chris Christie has improved his standing in New Hampshire.

Only one candidate appears to be going down everywhere and that’s been Ben Carson. Stung by poor media appearances after the Paris terrorist attacks, Carson has lost his lead in Iowa and similarly sunk in national polls. The soft-spoken former neurosurgeon was seen as being weak on foreign affairs going into the race and his lack of knowledge in the debates has been troubling – even to his backers.

On domestic issues he’s been outspoken against political correctness and media manipulation – but those aren’t the dominating concerns these days, as important as those matters may be.

Carson showed on Tuesday night that he could handle himself in the role of Commander in Chief as well. He stumbled a bit on the topic of North Korea towards the end of the forum, but his discussion of the Middle East was well informed and well-reasoned, especially in talking about his recent experiences in Jordan with Syrian refugees.

In terms of being qualified to perform as Commander in Chief, he said, “There’s a false narrative that only the political class is qualified to be Commander in Chief. This country is designed for the citizen statesman. I don’t do a lot of talking, I do a lot of doing. It’s says more of a person than how much they talk. Look and see what I’ve done and that speaks volumes about strength.”

Ben Carson still has flaws in his political portfolio, but many doubts were dispelled in Las Vegas. I’m not sure he’ll gain in the polls but I doubt he’ll fall even further.

Farewell to fourteen

The presidential primary race has reached mid-December and the enormous Republican presidential field still remains at fourteen, with only three candidates thus far calling it quits. Rick Perry was the first, Scott Walker next and Bobby Jindal bowing out about a month ago.

Some say Perry left too soon, but there’s very little evidence that his leaving the race made any difference whatsoever, especially with Donald Trump retaining his lead since mid-July. Walker clearly wasn’t ready to run for president in the first place, so his decision to exit was mostly well received. Jindal did well in all the undercard debates but just couldn’t seem to catch on, overshadowed by good conservative candidates who are regarded as being farther apart from the establishment.

Since so many candidates are still around, certainly there was speculation going into the evening that several might drop out if they couldn’t provide some good reason for sticking around.

I can’t get into the heads of the candidates, but I can offer my own thoughts on who should gracefully exit for the betterment of the competitors who have a legitimate chance of winning the nomination.

A place to start would be the four participants in the “Happy Hour” debate which began at 6:30 ET (3:30 in Las Vegas, which must have felt like a good time for afternoon tea). Lindsey Graham, George Pataki, Rick Santorum and Mike Huckabee have no avenue to breakout in the race and they’re basically just taking up space on stage and airtime on the networks.

It will be interesting to examine the ratings to see if there was any interest in watching them debate the same topics as the leading candidates.

Huckabee took part in the first two main stage debates and did well, but he’s been passed over by equally strong candidates championing social conservative causes who are also sounder on fiscal matters. The same can be said for Santorum, 2012’s winner in Iowa and overall runner-up. His time is passed.

Pataki and Graham didn’t belong from the beginning. Enough said.

Among the top-tier competitors, it’s hard to make an argument for the continued presence of John Kasich and Jeb Bush. Both rehashed their various experiences in office and tried to pass themselves off as tough on terrorism, but compared to Rubio they’re unable to make themselves sound attractive to the neoconservative establishment crowd.

Bush had by far his strongest debate performance to date but stumbles over answers. He’s got his brother’s and father’s gift (or lack thereof) of gab.

Kasich warmed all our hearts by talking about the nastiness of bickering in politics. His closing argument can be summed up as: “I’m the governor of Ohio and we need to win there, so vote for me!”

Carly Fiorina at least can say she needs to stay in as the only female candidate. What’s John Kasich’s selling point?

Some will say Rand Paul should drop out, but in my mind he’s one of the most crucially helpful candidates in the field – not only for his alternative foreign policy views but also as a foil to Rubio and the hawks.

Paul makes Ted Cruz sound more “moderate” as well. I hope Rand stays in.

What happens in Vegas may not stay in Vegas

Thanks largely to Ted Cruz taking the high road, the Las Vegas debate did not devolve into another version of “Fight Night in Vegas” on Tuesday night.

Cruz avoided a direct confrontation with Trump, and while he’s clearly not fond of Marco Rubio these days, there’s still a civility between them that’s good for the Republican Party.

The CNN Las Vegas debate will be remembered for its substantive exchange that revealed a lot about where the candidates really stand on the most important issues.

It will make for good Christmas dinner conversation, won’t it?

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