In the wake of Donald Trump’s sweep of New Hampshire, South Carolina, and Nevada, Republicans have been asking themselves if their presidential race is really over. The short answer is that if Trump keeps winning at that pace, it’s obvious that he will be the nominee. Indeed, the whole point of the way the Republican National Committee set up the contest was to create a system that would produce an early winner. The goal was to prevent a rerun of 2012 when Mitt Romney, the party’s clear choice, was subjected to a lengthy and bruising battle that extended into April, forcing him to spend more money and shift farther to the right in a way that undermined his chances in the general election. That means whoever wins the bulk of the delegates awarded from March 1-15 is going to be the nominee. Since Trump has the momentum after winning large pluralities in the last three contests and with his opponents still splitting the anti-Trump vote, he’s got to be the heavy favorite heading into next week’s Super Tuesday primaries.
But we may not really have to wait until next week to see if the same pattern repeats itself in the so-called SEC super primary across so many southern states. Tonight’s Republican debate on CNN should give us a very clear idea of whether Trump will be allowed to glide to more easy victories.
Ever since Iowa, when Ted Cruz correctly realized that he had to attack Trump directly in order to win the first-in-the-nation caucuses, the frontrunner has gotten a free pass. Thinking that the object of the game was to destroy their competitors for the votes of those who opposed Trump, the rest of the GOP field then formed a circular firing squad and commenced to start shooting.
The results of this melee were fascinating but predictable. All of the non-Trumps were damaged. Cruz and Marco Rubio treated each other as their main foe rather than Trump. Chris Christie attacked Rubio. Others attacked Jeb Bush. Though Trump was not entirely unscathed by this process, there was little doubt that he was largely given a pass as everyone else vied for what they considered the real prize: narrowing down the field to Trump and one or two competitors. Once we reached the final two or three, we were assured that then Trump would be cut down to size.
But after four states have voted, we’re still not there. Rubio and Cruz remain the most viable alternatives to Trump though both have clear liabilities (especially Cruz, who seems to have lost the core of his support — Christian conservatives — to Trump). John Kasich and Ben Carson are still hanging around though neither has a path to the nomination. Unless that changes quickly, Trump is a sure winner.
Just as important, tonight’s debate will be an opportunity to see if Rubio and Cruz are still more focused on attacking each other than on Trump. If the pair of freshman senators continue to go down the path of mutually assured destruction as they accuse each other of lying, they are both doomed.
If either could do or say something to make the other’s campaign collapse, there might be some logic to such a strategy. But they can’t. Rubio can call Cruz a liar and a hypocrite on immigration all he likes and it won’t make the Texan disappear. The same is true of Cruz’s attempts to label Rubio, an establishment toady. Both are too strong to be undone by the usual litany of backbiting charges. Yet both are also too weak to take down Trump by themselves. Both are waiting for the other to be vanquished when they will then vanquish Trump. But by the time either of them is forced to concede that they can’t win leaving the field open to the other, it will be too late to stop Trump.
That’s why both of them should ignore each other and concentrate their fire on Trump tonight. They need to forget about their feud and spend two hours hammering Trump on his support for key elements of ObamaCare, his mimicking of far-left talking points about foreign policy, his “neutrality” on Israel, and other evidence that he is not a conservative. Both must concentrate on highlighting the fact that Trump has no policy expertise and no concrete plans other than to keep mouthing empty slogans about winning and greatness. If they can do that, then we will see whether it will be possible for Republican voters to be freed of his spell.
But if Cruz and Rubio spend the debate sniping at each other, instead, and largely ignoring Trump while Kasich and Carson pointlessly take up time and space, then we’ll really know the race is over. If it turns out to be another night for witnessing the non-Trump circular firing squad executing each other, we won’t have to wait for Super Tuesday or the March 15 winner-take-all contests to know that Trump will win the nomination.
Republicans as well as Democrats, who are confident that they will make mincemeat of Trump’s records even if his GOP rivals won’t, will be watching to see if Rubio and Cruz have the wit and the courage to do what needs to be done. If not, the rest of the primary season will be the political equivalent of basketball’s “garbage time.”