CHARLESTON, SOUTH CAROLINA - It seems as though the strategic, longstanding, occasionally-endangered nonaggression pact between the top candidates in the Republican race has well and truly expired. As GOP frontrunner Donald Trump (effectively) flogged the Ted Cruz eligibility "issue" over the last week, the Texas Senator shifted from laughing it off, to offering a factual defense of himself, to blasting Trump with a stridency he'd long sought to avoid. With Iowans set to caucus in just over two weeks, it's crunch time, and tonight's debate on Fox Business Network is likely to reflect that growing sense of urgency. Trump is strongly hinting he'll come after Cruz directly on the birther fire he's worked so assiduously to stoke. Cruz is no doubt prepared for this virtual inevitability and may throw a punch or two back: Trump embodies "New York values" (read: liberal, boorish, loud, obnoxious), has a long history of "influence peddling," is deeply under-informed on national security and foreign policy specifics, and has enduring ties to the Clintons -- who'd probably love to run against him, rather than an actual conservative. Have your popcorn ready.
Cruz won't just be sparring with Trump, of course. He and third-place Marco Rubio are likely to go at it again on a number of fronts, including immigration, taxes (Rubio and Ben Carson -- whose campaign appears to be disintegrating -- have ramped up attacks on what they and many economists call Cruz's proposed European-style "Value Added Tax" or VAT), and perhaps Cap and Trade. But don't the two conservative Senate freshmen oppose the latter carbon emissions scheme? Yes, but a video surfaced this week -- quickly promoted by the Cruz, Jeb Bush and Chris Christie campaigns -- purporting to show Rubio as a Florida legislator endorsing a state-based Cap and Trade regime in 2008. The problem? The video cuts off just before Rubio makes his opposition clear, thus ripping a page out of Charlie Crist's discredited 2010 playbook. Here's how Rubio responded to this exact same attack during his Senate race that year:
Several outlets have reported on Rubio's nuanced, and potentially problematic, stance on the issue at the time -- he was working to oppose an initiative laid out by his own party's governor, a risky proposition as a member of leadership, without trashing said governor's intentions. He was also grappling with what seemed to be an unstoppable, bipartisan march toward cap and trade policies at the time (with Obama, Crist, McCain and Palin all in favor). But those who were there for the fight say Rubio led a savvy, effective and successful campaign to gut and defeat cap and trade in Florida. These accounts are fortified by Rubio's contemporaneous denunciations of government mandates and warnings that effective carbon taxes would harm average Americans by sharply increasing utility bills. Rubio critics may question some of the other ideas he floated in this 2007 Miami Herald piece, which is totally legitimate. They may also ask whether Rubio can credibly advance a "poison pill" defense after refusing to accept a similar explanation from Ted Cruz on immigration reform. The difference on that score is that Rubio explicitly stated his opposition to coercive cap and trade mandates during his Florida battle. During the Gang of Eight fight, however, Cruz -- who fought to defeat Rubio's bad bill -- unambiguously stated that he wanted to see immigration reform pass, urged colleagues of "good faith" to adopt his amendment (which would have resulted in the mass granting of legal status to millions), and continued to hold his "poison pill" stance (which he adamantly insisted was not a poison pill) after the fight was over. Cruz needlessly overplayed his hand on immigration by dramatically reversing several positions while denying that he'd ever held certain issue stances -- which has also become a problem for Christie lately. Anyway, the likelihood that one or both of these controversies flares up tonight is quite high. It will also be interesting to see how Rubio responds to the escalating insinuations from fellow candidates that he's weak and unreliable.
Cruz may also come under fire from rivals on two bogus issues: (1) The New York Times reported yesterday that Cruz failed to properly disclosed a loan from Goldman Sachs (where the then-candidate's wife worked) during his 2012 Senate race. Though Cruz acknowledges he may have inadvertently reported it incorrectly, there was nothing special or unusual about the loan, which was publicly disclosed prior to the primary and general elections he won. Not much "there" there. (2) Someone may try to knock Cruz on a supposed "flip-flop" on Ethanol subsidies, a boondoggle with heavy parochial support in Iowa. Yes, Cruz's tone and tactics in opposing the Renewable Fuel Standard have shifted a bit, but his opposition has been steadfast. It's a non-story, for reasons laid out nicely by Tim Carney, who'd initially joined the Cruz pile-on.
By the way, there will be an "undercard" forum this evening, among Carly Fiorina (who's been demoted based on polling rules), Mike Huckabee and Rick Santorum. Rand Paul -- who also got the boot under the rules -- is refusing to participate, while lobbying to be included in the primetime debate based on polling released after the established deadline. Paul was able to sway CNN with similar arguments last month, but his pleas appear to be falling on deaf ears this time. For what it's worth, I personally think having his perspective represented on stage is valuable to the party, and suspect he has more national appeal than someone like John Kasich, but it doesn't appear that he's being unfairly shafted. If he'd manage to attract more support over the course of many months and multiple debates, this wouldn't be a problem for him. In light of the winnowed field, the seven remaining candidates on the main stage will have more time to flesh out ideas and hash out differences. For that reason -- in addition to the unobtrusive professionalism exhibited by Fox Business' moderators in Milwaukee -- tonight is shaping up to be a substantive, fiery and memorable exchange. I'll leave you with the latest ads from the sputtering world of Jeb Bush -- one (rightfully) attacking a particularly odious Trump performance, and the other reprising the 'missed votes' hit on Rubio:
Will he actually land any blows against The Donald this time? And would it make any difference at all if he did? And why on earth did his SuperPAC decide to feature a conspiracy nut in that anti-Rubio ad? Look at this, then repeat after me, money does not "buy elections:"