Objectively, last night, Ted Cruz was off his game. He was at the center seat for the first time because Trump was not there. He knew everyone was coming to take shots at him. And it barely happened.
What did happen was Cruz engaging with Chris Wallace in a way that reflected poorly on Cruz. Rubio outclassed Cruz and Cruz’s joke about leaving the stage fell flat.
But then something happened. Cruz went silent. The moderators passed him by for other people. When they returned to him, they did four things.
First, they asked Cruz, and only Cruz, about Obamacare. He gave a sharp, short, pointed defense of repealing it and explaining what the GOP alternative should be.
Second, they asked Cruz why Washington hates him so much. Cruz still has very high favorability ratings in the GOP primary and Washington’s Republicans have a favorability rating slightly less than gall bladder removal surgery.
Third, they confronted Cruz and Rubio with their positions on immigration. Rubio came across as far more defensive than Cruz in the exchange, even though Rubio ultimately delivered a very good answer. Cruz had the opportunity to throw out the names of Jeff Sessions and Steve King repeatedly and got to remind everyone that Rubio, not Cruz, was aligned with Barack Obama and Chuck Schumer. It did not help that Jeb Bush then weighed in against Rubio on the same point.
Fourth, the moderators confronted Cruz about the ethanol lobby hating him. It gave Cruz the opportunity to attack the crony capitalist cartel in D.C. and subsidized industry.
At a time when a lot of voters are undecided and Cruz has high favorability ratings, he got to remind everyone that the anti-immigration forces like him and Washington hates him.
But as predictable as the sun coming up, the Republican leaning pundit class in Washington, in what appeared to be an extremely well orchestrated move, rushed to television sets everywhere to tell anyone who would listen that Ted Cruz did terrible. He came across as unlikeable. He came across as too hostile. He came across as unsure of his footing. He came across as calculated, which is a word used in television ads against Cruz and also used by Republican leaning pundits who suck off the Washington teet.
It has been a staggering fourteen hours after the debate watching gleeful Republicans declare Ted Cruz hurt himself and is so damn unlikable.
Last I checked, Cruz still has one of, if not the, highest favorability ratings of any of the candidates running for President in the GOP primary. The voters love him. That he got an uninterrupted chance to remind voters that Washington hates him, only to have it reinforced by Washington pundits, did not hurt Ted Cruz.
Ultimately, the very same group who has gotten everything else wrong about the 2016 election and the mood of the voters went on television tonight with well rehearsed, clearly orchestrated talking points and got the debate wrong too.
Yes, I do think Marco Rubio had a really good debate and came across as more pleasant than Cruz in the debate. But that is not going to hurt Ted Cruz. After all, all the right people hate him and the voters love him. The voters, not the talking heads, matter.