The debate on Feb. 6, a Saturday, may therefore be the last real shot for Bush and Christie to get into the race and reestablish themselves as something more than also-rans. It also will be critical for Kasich to remind New Hampshire voters that he is there and remains a viable candidate.
Trump, by all indications, will return to the debate stage Saturday. We will see if the Iowa loss stripped him of any bravado or venom. Will he go right back after Sen. Ted Cruz (Tex.)? That would be his natural inclination, but his arguments will have to be better than the birtherism canard. In some sense, both Trump and Sen. Marco Rubio (Fla.) have the same argument against Cruz: He is another slippery pol, tooting his own horn but as calculating and phony as the rest of them. Unlike Rubio, however, Trump does not need to show he is conservative enough for the GOP. His supporters by and large do not care what his ideology is; they want someone to show strength, candor, irreverence, and empathy for their anger and resentment.
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But married with Trump’s populist, less educated base of support is a certain sense of pragmatism — the opposite of Cruz’s appeal for rigid ideological purity. That contrast between deal-maker and enemy-maker should be on display at the debate Saturday. Cruz is right that Trump seems to have no governing vision. Trump is right that Cruz has little personal appeal and no sense of how to get things done. Between the two of them, they seem to embrace virtually every bad idea circulating on the right (e.g., protectionism, exclusion of immigrants, disregard for human rights) and every bad political trait of our times (e.g., anger, rudeness, dishonesty, lack of compassion).
For Bush, Kasich, Christie and Rubio, the trick will be letting Cruz and Trump duke it out, while making themselves seem like sane, electable grown-ups. Certainly Bush, Rubio and to a certain extent Christie have the opportunity to skewer Cruz and Trump for unserious foreign policy. Neither Cruz nor Trump has a coherent plan for defeating the Islamic State. Neither one has a concrete agenda for repairing alliances or restraining China. (They want to do China’s work for it by wrecking the Trans-Pacific Partnership, which is vital to our Asian allies.)
If the GOP is gradually coming to its political senses, looking for an electable nominee and a plausible chief executive, this will be the week to knock out Trump and show Cruz has minimal appeal outside deep-red locales. Cruz’s support in Iowa came overwhelmingly from very conservative voters, about 44 percent of whom voted for him, and could get only about 19 percent of somewhat conservative voters and about 9 percent of moderates.That split works in the Iowa caucuses where the most conservative voters predominate, but not in the majority of primary contests. Revealing him to be a rigid ideologue with very few answers for our problems should be the grown-ups’ focus.