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Texas CNN Republican debate: Trump exposed as fraud in Rubio-Cruz pincer movement

It’s hard to believe it’s only been twelve days since the last Republican debate, because it seems like a lifetime ago that the candidates met in South Carolina to discuss the issues that matter most to Republican and conservative voters across the country.

Of course that was the day Justice Antonin Scalia died. There was a tangible sense of loss and seriousness at that debate, even if the program eventually devolved into a “cage match” between Jeb Bush and Donald Trump over the Iraq War.

And of course Donald Trump and Marco Rubio both got in their digs about Ted Cruz being a “liar.” The attacks seem to have taken their toll on Cruz as he somewhat underperformed in South Carolina, a state he probably should Texas CNN Debatehave been in competition to win rather than battle with Rubio for a near-tie for second.

In the days since then, Trump lodged a double-digit win in the Palmetto State and doubled-up second place (Rubio) in Nevada. Therefore, all the momentum was heavily in his favor going into Thursday night’s debate (at the University of Houston’s Moores Opera Center, hosted by CNN) and the greatest question at the outset was whether and how much Ted Cruz and Marco Rubio were going to try and dent Trump ahead of next week’s Super Tuesday primaries.

The answer came early, and it turns out, a lot.

Marco Rubio began the two-pronged assault on the New York billionaire a few minutes into the program, correctly pointing out that Trump was fined a million dollars for hiring illegal workers for one of his construction projects and then also correctly mentioning that Trump had just dropped the same “self deport” language The Donald had criticized Mitt Romney for using four years ago.

Cruz also took every opportunity to hit Trump’s record, suggesting Trump’s contributions to the Clinton Foundation and personal friendship with Hillary and Bill would make him a weak candidate in the general election.

Ted also strongly emphasized Trump’s lifelong record of hobnobbing with liberal politicians sheds doubt on the billionaire’s promise to nominate strict constructionist Justices.

Cruz said (paraphrasing), “Everyone said they will nominate strict constitutionalists. I’ve spent my whole life fighting to defend the Bill of Rights. I give you my word: every Justice I nominate will vigorously defend the Bill of Rights for my children and yours.”

The audience gave Ted an appropriate round of applause.

Because of the contentious tone of the debate, the three candidates often talked-over each other in trying to make and refute arguments. The moderators (CNN’s Wolf Blitzer, Radio host Hugh Hewitt, CNN’s Dana Bash and Telemundo’s Maria Celeste Arraras) appeared to lose control at times, leading to somewhat of a circus-like atmosphere.

Let’s just say if you’re looking for “presidential” conduct, this wasn’t it.

All of the candidates vied hard for time. Ben Carson even said at one point, “Would someone please attack me so I can talk?”

At the end of the evening, the CNN Texas debate was probably the most helpful one thus far in exposing where the candidates really stand on issues.

With only five candidates taking part, Trump was not only physically at the center of the stage, he was in the middle of the storm. When he couldn’t produce many details, the candidates called him on it.

Will it make a difference to Trump voters? I’m not sure. I wish this debate had happened two months ago and maybe we wouldn’t be in the position we’re in now.

Rubio wins on style, Cruz wins on substance

Watching Thursday night’s debate almost reminded me of the judging criteria used for figure skating competitions where skaters are assessed on both artistic impression and technical merit.

With that as a guide, Rubio won handily on artistic impression and Cruz won on technical merit.

The post-debate commentators were quick to compliment Rubio for his new strategy of going toe-to-toe with Donald Trump, a side of the Florida senator we hadn’t seen before. Rubio clearly did his homework in the areas best to attack Trump, most notably on his hypocritical and evolving views on illegal immigration as well as his lack of specificity on how to deal with replacing Obamacare.

When Trump repeated himself several times in talking about “dissolving the lines” for buying health insurance, Rubio even joked about him giving canned answers. It was funny.

I think Rubio is a slick politician without a lot of substance or core beliefs, but he certainly comes across well to the disinterested observer. It’s easy to see why the establishment likes him so much because they see money whenever he opens his mouth.

In other words, if Rubio wins, they keep their jobs. Marco’s a very gifted talker – maybe he could compete with Carly Fiorina for White House Press Secretary in a Cruz Administration.

Cruz won on technical merit for backing Trump into a corner on his many and varied inconsistencies in dealing with politicians. When Trump repeated his oft-used line about “getting along with everybody” and contributing to politicians of all stripes, Cruz retorted “you do know politicians better than anyone. For forty years you funded liberal politicians.”

“If you cared about illegal immigration you wouldn’t be hiring illegal aliens,” Cruz said.

With Rubio and Cruz both hitting Trump on his career flip-flops, Trump looked bad a number of times.

But for as much flak as Trump was taking from the two senators on either side of him, I will say he did a fairly good job of keeping his temper. Trump looked angry numerous times during the South Carolina debate twelve days ago, but Thursday night he mostly kept his personal insults under control.

There was one moment where Trump called Rubio a “choke artist” and Cruz “a liar” in the same sentence (and also managed to insult Hugh Hewitt later on by saying no one listens to his show), but other than a few brief flashes of temper, he mostly kept it to himself.

Could it be Trump is already assuming he’s the nominee and is trying to start the healing process with the rest of the party? That’s what it looked like to me.

Ted Cruz looks to be winning in Texas…will it be enough?

One of the unique aspects of Thursday night’s debate was the fact it took place after many people in Texas have already voted. Some say there’ve been well over half a million votes already cast in the Lone Star State, so of course those folks have no chance to change their minds based on anything they saw in Thursday’s debate.

It may not matter, however, as a new Texas poll came out showing Cruz significantly ahead there. Eliza Collins of Politico reports, “Sen. Ted Cruz is leading Donald Trump by 15 percentage points in his home state, according to a Monmouth University poll out Thursday.

“Cruz has the support of 38 percent of likely GOP primary voters, Trump has 23 percent and Florida Sen. Marco Rubio has 21 percent. Rounding out the Republican presidential field, retired neurosurgeon Ben Carson has 6 percent and Ohio Gov. John Kasich has 5 percent.”

Cruz enjoys a huge advantage in Texas due to the organization he established during his Senate run in 2012. He merely had to recharge the batteries and refresh the lists as his incredibly efficient and motivated campaign machine is a model for turning out the vote. It appears to be working well in Texas, and his approval at home is yet another sign that he serves the interests of conservatives well.

Contrast Cruz’s popularity in should-be-friendly Texas to rival Marco Rubio’s standing in his home territory of Florida, where he still trails Trump by double-digits in one poll that was released Thursday.

Marc Caputo of Politico reports, “Marco Rubio is getting clobbered by Donald Trump in home state of Florida, where a Quinnipiac University poll shows the frontrunner is polling at an all-time high in the Republican race for president.

“Trump's 44-28 percent lead over Rubio reflects the momentum of the New York billionaire’s string of first-place finishes in the last three early state races, and it blunts the Florida senator's argument that he's the only candidate who can defeat the frontrunner in a one-on-one race.”

It should be noted that another Florida poll (from the reliable Associated Industries of Florida) came out on Thursday showing Trump with “only” a seven point advantage over Rubio.

Meanwhile, as many as 250,000 Florida Republicans may have already voted in their primary as well.

So in other words, it’s questionable how much Rubio could stand to gain in the aftermath of Thursday’s debate, especially since he won’t be close to winning any state on Super Tuesday and Cruz will likely have re-established himself as the only candidate who could possibly beat Trump after winning in Texas.

If Cruz only prevails in Texas on Tuesday, however, it doesn’t do much to bolster his “I can win everywhere” argument, but it’s much better than Rubio’s position.

It only makes sense that voters will pick a “not-Trump” candidate at some point in the campaign. With time winding down and delegates piling up for Trump ahead of March 15, it’s very clear Cruz is the only candidate in the Republican field who is still “viable.”

Nothing that happened on Thursday night changed that impression, either. The issue of electability didn’t really come up directly – at least the moderators didn’t ask about it – but Rubio’s electoral path remains next to impossible.

There are two more debates before Florida votes, but Super Tuesday and several more states will vote on March 8. Rubio more than likely will be winless going into Florida. It’s hard to imagine him winning there, and even if he did, it will have been far too late.

If Republicans want an alternative, it’s got to be Cruz.

Voters don’t want “electability” in 2016, they want strong leadership

Now that Donald Trump has established himself as the clear frontrunner, a lot more attention is being devoted to his potential electability in the general election race. As of Thursday, he still trailed Hillary Clinton in the Real Clear Politics average, but November is still over eight months away and a ton of things can change between now and then.

Including, of course, Trump not winning the Republican nomination. But there’s a lot of work to be done before Trump would be stopped.

For now, it appears as though Republican voters are no longer buying the “electability” argument, since Trump is polling the worst among those still in the race against the Democrats. Mitt Romney won the nomination four years ago because the establishment promised he was the best one to take on Barack Obama.

They were wrong and people remember. Voters are going a different direction in 2016.

David French of National Review writes, “[I]ncreasing numbers of GOP voters are rejecting character and conviction for sheer aggression. No one doubts that aggression can be satisfying, but aggression isn’t a governing principle. It’s a tactic. While Trump’s aggression serves some policies that conservatives support (like border security), it also serves Planned Parenthood, the individual mandate, and Vladimir Putin.

“Ultimately, Trump’s aggression serves Trump. Self-aggrandizement may be the spirit of our age, but it should never be the spirit of our movement. It is time to fight, but for the sake of conviction, not for the sake of the fight itself.”

I think French just laid out the perfect argument for Ted Cruz, who is basing his candidacy on conviction, principle and dedication to the Constitution. Cruz isn’t promising “great deals” or that he’ll make Mexico pay for a border wall.

He’s merely advocating for a return to our Founding Principles and to reduce the size and scope of government while fiercely defending our individual liberties.

Marco Rubio is offering a lot of Mitt Romney-like promises as his justification for winning the Republican nomination. Voters aren’t buying it either. After seeing John McCain and Romney go down in flames to the Democrats’ “Hope and Change” crapola, they want leaders – and yes, to some extent, a little “tell it like it is” quality.

Again, nothing that happened on Thursday night changes the equation, though Cruz did point out that Trump is the only one who trails Clinton in the general election polls.

John Kasich made the claim that he’s eleven points ahead of Hillary Clinton in one poll. I’m not sure if that’s accurate, but Kasich has zero chance to win the Republican nomination in any case – so it might as well be a hundred points.

It doesn’t matter.

Thursday night’s was the first debate where foreign policy took a back seat

I know it’s difficult to fathom, but foreign policy actually played a very minor role in Thursday night’s program.

There were the usual exchanges over support versus non-support for Israel and who backed whom in the various disasters in the Middle East, but I’m not sure anyone gained an advantage in talking about it.

With President George H. W. Bush looking on, Trump refrained from repeating his attacks on George W. Bush’s foreign policy decisions. At least there he showed a little class.

Trump did make one interesting point on the subject. When asked about how he would deal with North Korea, Trump said he would make sure Japan and South Korea pay more for their own security. In doing so, he introduced a concept that hasn’t received much attention in the 2016 campaign, namely, why aren’t America’s allies picking up the tab for “protection duty” from dangerous neighbors?

These countries spend a very small percentage of their GDPs on security, relying on America to not only provide the military might, but also pay for it.

If Trump does end up with the nomination and eventually wins the presidency, this would be one area where American foreign policy could desperately use a change.

Donald Trump won’t release his tax returns…but is it a problem?

It may be a sign of desperation, but Mitt Romney brought up releasing income tax returns as a possible way to stop Trump at this stage of the race. Romney reasoned that he released his returns early as a way to diffuse any potential controversy and suggested by inference that Trump hasn’t yet released his because he’s got something to hide.

Marco Rubio jumped on the Trump tax return issue during Wednesday night’s Fox Town Hall as well. I guess he couldn’t think it up on his own, so Romney was appointed by the establishment to broach the subject.

Wolf Blitzer raised the issue again in Thursday night’s debate. Trump calmly explained that he’s been unfairly audited for twelve years in a row and would not be releasing his tax returns until this year's audit is finished.

In answering, he was sure to make the point that he’s a successful business owner with thousands of employees and the matter was very complicated, getting in a dig at the IRS along the way.

Rubio and Cruz pounced on the fact Trump wouldn’t commit to releasing his taxes, but I’m not sure this is an issue that anyone – other than maybe the Democrats – really cares about.

Trump’s refusal to open up the books, so to speak, makes him look kind of like a mafia don who thinks he’s above the law. But it’s not something that anyone in the Republican primary really worries about.

You either think Trump is dishonest or you don’t. And in the case of some of Trump’s base, they don’t care. As long as he gives the appearance of sticking it to the establishment, whether he cheats on taxes doesn’t matter to them.

He might even GAIN votes with these people if it was revealed that he’d put one over on the government.

It’s a sad thing to say, but true.

Ben Carson defiant about staying in the race, but we’re the ones paying for it

Retired neurosurgeon Ben Carson has achieved more in 2016 than anyone would have imagined a year ago. But his insistence on staying in the race long after any smidgen of viability is curious to say the least.

And costly, too.

Erick Erickson of The Resurgent points out there’s another aspect of Carson’s staying in the race that should be of concern to all of us. “What they may not realize is that Ben Carson is getting Secret Service protection, even though he has exactly zero shot at being the nominee.

“Carson, a man who claims he wants to rein in the federal government and stop wasteful spending in Washington, is perfectly happy to waste taxpayer dollars on a Secret Service detail. He should be ashamed of himself.”

I agree. Carson’s staying in the race is somewhat shameful at this point. He had a terrific answer on how to reform the healthcare system on Thursday night, but other than that, he was mostly invisible (granted, he wasn’t asked many questions).

Carson could play a very valuable role as part of a Republican administration and I would have no problem with putting him in charge of drafting a plan to reform government’s role in healthcare – but in terms of the top job, he just doesn’t seem to fit.

Ben’s “bedside manner” persona and slow speech pattern lulls you to sleep. Soothing, perhaps, but voters want a little more fire this year.

Conclusion – making sense of 2016

I haven’t talked much about John Kasich in this column. The Ohio governor once again tried to portray himself as the calm voice in the room – and came across well for the most part.

I could see how Kasich might have done well four years ago as a possible challenger to Mitt Romney in the establishment lane.

But again, this year people want something different.

Thursday night’s debate was entertaining and informative in most ways. I’m doubtful it changed the dynamic in the race, but it showed, once again, that the Republican Party offers a real choice in candidates.

Realistically speaking, there’s only one candidate who can challenge Donald Trump at this point – and that’s Ted Cruz.

We’ll see how it goes on Tuesday.

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