What to expect at tonight’s Republican debate

The ninth Republican debate takes place tonight. The field is now reduced to ‘only’ six people, still large but reduced from the 17 who started. That makes the stakes higher as everyone seeks to avoid being the one who is eliminated next. As in musical chairs the aggressiveness is likely to be ramped up as the field gets smaller. I am in California right now and the early debate time may clash with a social commitment with family and friends and so I will likely miss what promises to be a bruising encounter.

Ted Cruz has been running attack ads against Donald Trump and the latter, never one to ignore even minimal slights, has raised the level of accusations against Cruz, calling him either a liar, crazy, or very dishonest or possibly all three. And the insults have not stopped there. It is hard to imagine but it was just recently that Trump and Cruz were best friends, refraining not only from attacking each other but speaking in warm terms.

In addition some people, including some of Trump’s supporters, are suing Cruz in federal court in Alabama saying that he is not a ‘natural-born citizen’ and thus ineligible to be president.

The lawsuit cites Article II, Section 1 of the Constitution, which rules that “no person except a natural born citizen, or a citizen of the United States, at the time of the adoption of this Constitution, shall be eligible to the office of president.”

Under that clause, the plaintiffs claim, “Cruz is not a ‘natural born’ citizen of the United States of America.”

“Mr. Cruz was born in Canada, and obviously Canada is not a territory or protectorate of the United States, it’s not dominion of the United States,” Drake told The Hill.

“And as such, when he was born, at the moment of his birth, location determined his status, and his status was that of a natural-born Canadian citizen,” he added.

A similar suit has been filed in Texas and another suit has been filed against Marco Rubio.

The first major hurdle that the courts will have address, before they even get to the merits of the case, is that of ‘standing’, whether those filing the complaints will suffer sufficient harm if Cruz ineligibly becomes president (or even the Republican nominee) that they have the right to seek legal redress. Who has the right to use? Is it any citizen? Any member of the Republican party? Or only one of the rival candidates?

Meanwhile, Rubio has a serious problem in the debate tonight. He has to fight against the image created by the shellacking that Chris Christie inflicted on him in the last debate, and which he himself heavily contributed to, of being a brainless puppet, robotically parroting speeches given to him by others. How can he counter that other than by being deliberately inarticulate or inserting long pauses between phrases, as president Obama does? Whatever points he makes in his usual rapid-fire way will be dismissed as a new memorized speech and I suspect that Trump or Cruz are the most likely to execute that rhetorical wedgie on the hapless Rubio. Rubio’s advisors must have prepared for this and it will be interesting to see what they come up with in response.

Meanwhile Roger Ailes’s biographer Gabriel Sherman reports that Trump has thrown Fox News into a state of confusion as to how to cover him and it is causing serious rifts within the organization.

Inside Fox there is confusion about what role the network should play in this altered media ecosystem going forward. According to three insiders I spoke to, the channel’s hosts and producers are split over how to cover Trump. Historically, in moments like this, the strategy would be clear: Punish the person who publicly crosses Fox. But network boss Ailes has tried that, and Trump not only survived the PR assaults, including one last month, but he seems to have emerged stronger than ever. The situation is even more dire because Marco Rubio, a favorite of many high-profile voices at the network, fared badly in the New Hampshire primary, only a few days after political analysts were floating the possibility that he might even beat Trump. Tuesday night, Fox’s pundit class had to accept that his robotic performance during ABC’s debate may have destroyed his candidacy. Charles Krauthammer even compared it to Ed Muskie’s 1972 implosion.

Measured in ratings, Fox continues to be a powerhouse, and Ailes’s failure so far to develop a Trump strategy isn’t hurting business (though the Trump-less debate had the second-lowest viewership this primary season). For Ailes, however, huge audiences and the profits that flow from them are only a means to an end. He’s said he wants to be a GOP kingmaker. He’s told colleagues that Rupert Murdoch “needs me to elect the next president.” But if Trump gets elected, Fox will have had little to do with it. In fact, it may be a sign of Ailes’s waning power and the waxing of Trump’s that Murdoch seems to be warming to the idea of a Trump candidacy.

If anyone other than Trump had the dominance that he has had over the last six months, the Iowa second-place finish would be dismissed as the usual Iowa idiosyncrasy and the Republican race would be considered over and the rest would be expected to pretty much fade away from the scene soon. But there still persists the strong feeling, or maybe hope is the better word, that in some way not specified, Trump’s candidacy will self-destruct, and so the goal is to be the person left standing to inherit the prize.

Hence you can expect the debate to be a fiery one as people fight for that much-coveted second-place spot. Let the fireworks begin!


  1. Pierce R. Butler says

    … Trump and Cruz were best friends…

    To the extent that either has actual friends (as compared to minions and temporary allies), which is not at all.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *