Donald Trump's speech to Liberty University's convocation was loud, scattered, semi-blasphemous -- in other words, Trumpian. It was also impossible to watch without thinking of another candidate who had launched his campaign in that setting. Ten months ago, Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Tex.) appeared at the Christian campus, declared "God bless Liberty," and regaled students with the stories of his family's relationship to Jesus Christ. Some Yik Yak skepticism aside, Cruz gave a largely conservative, evangelical audience what it wanted. Trump gave it... Trump.
It should go without saying that delivering a good speech, one that is relevant to the audience and inspires lots of applause, is better than delivering a bad speech. But with Trump and Cruz now fighting for dominance, you can forget that they appeal to different voters.
That was unmissable this weekend, when Cruz spoke to the South Carolina Tea Party Coalition Convention (whew!) just two hours before Trump. It was one of the last times -- honestly, perhaps the last time -- that the two would appear at the same cattle call. (The next one that may draw both candidates is CPAC, just six weeks away, but after the South-heavy SEC primary.) A sophisticated coterie of national reporters watched Cruz, then Trump.
The stories that emerged were generally more negative for the latter. But the event itself was revealing. Around one quarter of the activists, of 600 or so, wore Cruz swag. Around a quarter wore Trump swag. Cruz volunteers were working the event and selling swag.
Cruz is all applause lines; Trump just talks. The Texan, who at this point is unquestionably the best traditional orator in the Republican Party, speaks two kinds of sentences -- applause lines and jokes. He often runs down a list, transforming into a human Buzzfeed, a guaranteed method of keeping an audience rapt. This is not a new trick; I have seen him hold audiences with lists of "conservative victories," and in Myrtle Beach it became a list of "times for choosing."
Trump does not do this. Trump rambles. Trump steps on lines that could, untrammeled, become applause lines. This is not because he is bad at speaking, and from time to time, he obviously is repeating a thought to make sure it connects. "We need borders," he said in Myrtle Beach. "If you don't have borders, you don't have a country. Right now, we don't have a country." Cruz is happy to say that, as one of his action items, Americans "finally, finally secure our southern border."
After the speech, I found Cruz making some believers out of Trump fans, people who liked him more than they had before the speech. But that was not because Trump blew it. The people in Trump gear said that they loved how he simply had a conversation with his audience. "I have never felt this strongly about a candidate," said Barbara Shepherd, who managed the Trump office in Myrtle Beach. "Cruz is a first-term senator; he's part of the Washington establishment." For some people, slickness is a curse.
Cruz wins over a crowd; Trump assumes it's already won. The most negative coverage Trump earned all weekend came when he briefly mentioned Cruz's campaign loans, and some of the Cruz supporters -- maybe one out of 10 people in the room -- started to boo. RedState's Leon Wolf, in a post about Trump's "epic weekend meltdown," was one of several people who mistakenly said that Trump lost the argument at a "rally" of "his own supporters."
They weren't Trump's own supporters, but he treated them as such. He has limited his press access since the summer and infrequently talks to people who don't support him. But that's part of the schtick. Trump brims with self-confidence, and tries to share it by boasting of his high poll numbers. Everybody else is on the train already, he seems to be saying. Let's just assume you're boarding. He insults his opponents, but his policy critiques are sparse. Jeb Bush is "weak on common core," for example.
Cruz, meanwhile, methodically explains his voting record and the records of others. The rap on this is that Cruz ends up the hero of every story, and that some of the re-enactments are fishy. Audiences are told, for example, that a post-Sandy Hook gun-control bill was inevitable until Cruz (and Utah's Mike Lee) stopped it. In Myrtle Beach, they were also told that Cruz had fought to defund Planned Parenthood, while no one would. "Imagine if every Republican candidate had descended on Washington," said Cruz. In reality, Cruz spent two months floating the idea of a Planned Parenthood filibuster, then not bothering with one.
Cruz is at war with the Obama administration; Trump just wishes it wasn't so bad. The two men really brought this out when they reacted to the deal that freed four Americans from Iran, including The Washington Post's Jason Rezaian. Both had reacted in earlier speeches, and Myrtle Beach gave them a chance to expand their remarks.
"While we celebrate their return, this deal serves as a piece of propaganda for both Iran and the Obama administration," Cruz said. "You'll notice, every compliant reporter will say, well, isn't this deal wonderful? Let me tell you, three years ago I released legislation that said the unconditional release of American hostages should be a precondition before beginning any conversation with Iran."
Trump did not characterize the releases that way. He took partial credit for them. "So I've been hitting them hard and I think I might have had something to do with it," he said. "You want to know the truth? It's a part of my staple thing, I mean, I go crazy when I hear about this, you go absolutely wild because how is it possible?"
This week, Cruz seems intent on continuing his fight to discredit Trump. In press conferences and radio interviews, he has been adding to a litany of Trumpian crimes against conservatism, from his donations to the Clinton Foundation to his inherited wealth to his support for the 2009 stimulus package.
Some of that has been litigated in the media already. Some of it may be new to Republicans just tuning in. But Trump really seems to be going after voters who do not care about this, and who care more about charisma, instinct, and avoiding any taint whatsoever from politics.