If Ted Cruz is going to win the Republican presidential nomination, he’ll have to figure out to handle Donald Trump.
So far, he can’t.
Cruz’s strength is logic, Trump’s is emotion, and the two don’t mix. The real estate mogul unnerved Cruz Thursday by questioning whether the senator’s Canadian birth disqualifies him from the presidency. That notion deeply stirs some Republicans who still haven’t conceded President Barack Obama was born in this country (he was).
Cruz fired back with his trademark tightly crafted reasoning and relentless intensity. Later he went after Trump for having liberal “New York values,” only to find Trump reaching for the heart again. And succeeding, as he recalled how bravely and passionately New Yorkers rallied to recover from the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks.
This is a brawl that will dominate the top of the GOP race for a while, and if Cruz doesn’t figure out a way to rattle Trump, he’ll be a falling star, not a surging candidate.
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Cruz will put up a good fight. He has a relentless ability to battle back with a flurry of quips, data and the unwavering self-assurance that’s helped the 45-year-old first-term senator from Texas surge into the top tier of presidential candidates.
The Trump-Cruz duel is in some ways typical of Cruz’s up-and-down candidacy since the year began. He led the Bloomberg Politics/Des Moines Register Jan. 7-10 Iowa poll, but his lead was bigger a month earlier.
A victory in the Iowa caucuses in less than three weeks would give Cruz tremendous potential. He’s in the top tier of contenders in polling for the New Hampshire primary, and he’s adding stops next week in the state.
25% Cruz support in the Jan. 7-10 Bloomberg Politics/Des Moines Register Iowa Republican Poll. Trump is second at 22%.
The calendar then looks built just for Cruz, with his strong appeal to evangelical voters. South Carolina’s next, then a swath of Southern states. By the start of March, he could be the clear Republican front-runner.
But Cruz has been a national player for only about three years, since he came to the U.S. Senate. And as with most of his Republican rivals, he’s largely unknown beyond quick descriptions: Tough conservative. tea party favorite. Smart lawyer. Intense. Maverick. Widely disliked in Washington.
Now his nemesis is one of America’s savviest media figures, a pro at getting attention, and the citizenship issue is a classic way of doing that. Cruz was born to an American mother. He maintains he qualifies as a natural-born citizen and can be president. Scholars tend to agree, but Trump’s raising questions that others have asked.
“This isn’t me saying it. I don’t care. I think I’m going to win fair and square,” Trump said in the debate. Heck, Trump said, if he picks Cruz as his running mate, Democrats will sue “because we can’t take him along for the ride. I don’t like that. OK?”
Cruz, his tone confident, his gaze steady, fought back. First came the sarcasm. “I’m glad we’re focusing on the important topics of the evening,” he said.
He surgically twisted the verbal knife. “I spent my entire life defending the Constitution before the U.S. Supreme Court and I’m not going to be taking legal advice from Donald Trump,” Cruz said.
Under longstanding U.S. law, the child of a U.S. citizen born abroad is a natural-born citizen.
Sen. Ted Cruz on whether he meets the qualification to be president
Cruz said Trump brought all this up because he’s slipped in polls. No argument there, Trump said, and chances are as long as he needs to raise doubts about Cruz, this dispute won’t be settled anytime soon.
Trump was not about to let Cruz win the night, and he gained an advantage after Cruz brought up “New York values,” an attempt to tar Trump with New York liberalism.
Trump summoned the other image of New York values — Sept. 11.
“The people in New York fought and fought and fought, and we saw more death, and even the smell of death. Nobody understood it,” Trump said. “And it was with us for months, the smell in the air.”
What will go viral on social media, and the clips that will be played repeatedly on TV, will be Cruz the fiery attorney making his case. He’s going to be doing that daily as long as he could be the one to beat. Whether he won over enough of the jury Thursday night, the American electorate, is an open question.