Ted Cruz arrived in Las Vegas for Tuesday night’s fifth Republican debate surging in the national polls and as the newly anointed favorite in Iowa, where support among evangelicals was always expected to be a strength. After the performance he turned in under the bright lights of this latest debate, he’s likely to depart riding an even bigger wave of attention.
Cruz has always been one of the strongest and most experienced debaters on the stage, but he was even more aggressive on Tuesday than he has been in past debates. Instead of focusing his attention on criticizing the moderators as in previous performances, he used their questions to his advantage—embracing front-runner Donald Trump early and attacking more mainstream rival Marco Rubio late. Those two candidates had strong nights as well—Rubio, in particular, largely held serve in the establishment lane—but Cruz was the one who appeared to hit more of his marks and take fewer hits during the freewheeling and combative event.
One of Cruz’s best moments came early in the night. For months, the Texas senator has been playing the long game with Trump, campaigning in the slipstream of his blustery belligerence on immigration and foreign policy in the hopes of eventually nabbing his supporters if he ultimately drops out. But on Tuesday—with millions watching at home—Cruz executed his strategy better than he ever has. When the moderators asked him where he disagreed with Trump’s horrible (yet popular in the GOP) plan to indefinitely ban Muslims from the United States, Cruz didn’t take the bait. “Everyone understands why Donald has suggested what he has,” Cruz said, before quickly pivoting to his preferred talking points: attacking Democrats. “We’re looking at a president who’s engaged in double speak, where he doesn’t call radical Islamic terrorism by its name,” he said. He continued:
Indeed, he gives a speech after the San Bernardino attack where his approach is to try to go after the constitutional rights of law-abiding citizens, rather than to keep us safe. Even worse, president Obama and Hillary Clinton are proposing bringing tens of thousands of Syrian refugees to this country when the head of the FBI has told Congress they cannot vet those refugees.
Pro-gun? Check. Obama and Hillary twofer? Check. (Style aside: misrepresentations of what Obama and the FBI chief said? Check and check.) In the span of seconds, Cruz had crafted a national security answer that could appeal both to the significant slice of the conservative base that backs Trump’s proposal without alienating the more moderate chunk of the party that thinks the GOP front-runner has gone too far.
Rubio had a solid night as well, offering strong answers on foreign policy that will endear him to the hawks in his party. When it comes to military intervention, he and Cruz present Republicans with an actual choice between interventionist and slightly less interventionist. It’s too soon, though, to say which stance better matches the current mood of electorate. But on the question that is dominating the GOP conversation today—securing our borders—Trump-lite is playing much better in the polls than establishment-lite.
Cruz managed to take advantage of this edge by hitting Rubio hard on his past immigration efforts, something that has always been a glaring weak spot on the Floridian’s conservative resume. "Border security is national security,” Cruz said during an exchange with Rubio that he steered back to refugees, while tying Rubio to much disliked Democratic rivals and reminding people about his active role in the 2013 push for immigration reform. “And one of the most troubling aspects of the Rubio–Schumer Gang of Eight bill is it gave President Obama blanket authority to admit refugees. We have seen what happened in San Bernardino when you are letting people in and the FBI can't vet them, it puts American citizens at risk.” Then Cruz stuck the landing with a joke: “I tell you if I'm elected president, we will secure the border. We will triple the border patrol. We will build a wall that works and I'll get Donald Trump to pay for it.”
Later, when Trump was given the chance to live up to his promise of tearing Cruz down, the GOP front-runner instead offered a huge hug. “I have gotten to know him over the last three or four days, he has a wonderful temperament,” Trump said. “He’s just fine. Don’t worry about it.” For a man hoping to be the Trump fans’ Plan B, Cruz couldn’t have asked for a better moment, or a better night.