Critic's Notebook: Cruz-ing for a Bruising at a Trump-Free GOP Debate

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Thanks to Cruz, Rubio, Christie and Megyn Kelly, there were still plenty of fireworks in the room, even without Trump.

Here's a question: If they held a Republican presidential debate and Donald Trump wasn't there, did it actually make a sound?

Thursday night's GOP event — number seven, count 'em, seven so far — proved the answer is a qualified yes. Sure, the Donald was missed at first, with moderator Megyn Kelly cleverly referring to him as "the elephant not in the room" with her very first question. It was naturally addressed to Ted Cruz, simply because he was the resident alpha male by default.

Before answering, Cruz lavishly praised the people of Iowa, promising that when he becomes president it will not be part of flyover, but rather "fly-to" territory (OK, but are there any good restaurants?). For a while he pretended to be likeable, but finally got around to the question.

"I'm a maniac," he announced, and for one blissful second it seemed like he was having a Howard Beale moment and telling the truth. But no such luck. "And everyone on this stage is stupid, fat, and Ben, you're a terrible surgeon," he continued. "And now that we've got the Donald Trump portion out of the way…"

The answer got the expected laugh, but the Trump portion wasn't out of the way yet, as several of the others joined in with their sarcasm dripping.

"He's the greatest show on earth," admitted Rubio. "I kind of miss Donald Trump, he was a little teddy bear to me," joked Bush, although since he smiles all the time it's hard to tell when he's joking or not.

But after everyone got that off their chests, the evening proceeded apace, with the remaining candidates (including Rand Paul, obviously thrilled to be let back in the room with the grown-ups) delivering their patented shtick without missing a beat.

But a little later something wonderful happened. Megyn Kelly teased it before a commercial break, promising the viewing audience "something you've never seen before." What was it, the nation wondered? Trump suddenly riding in on a white horse? The candidates engaging in a dirty dancing contest? Chris Christie in a speedo?

Better. It was the use of "gotcha" videos first of Marco Rubio and then of Ted Cruz, showing them blatantly contradicting themselves on policy positions throughout the years. Rubio was particularly flustered by this new and highly effective brand of attack, which concentrated on his flip-flopping on immigration and amnesty, responding with a litany of tough steps he would take, including tracking immigrants like Federal Express packages. And he didn't even give credit for the idea to Chris Christie.

This led to a mini-debate within the debate, with Rubio and Jeb protractedly fighting with each other to essentially determine which one had changed his positions more. Bush stressed that anyone could read his thoughts on the matter in his book on immigration, for which he gave the least compelling plug ever: "It's $2.99 on Amazon, it wasn't a best-seller," he admitted. "It's affordable for everybody."

Megyn Kelly pointedly asked Cruz about his contradictory positions, revealed on video, regarding his amendment to the immigration bill. "Was that an act? It was pretty convincing," she said with a sly grin on her face. (Translation: "Liar, liar, pants on fire!").

Between this new Meet the Press-inspired form of questioning and Fox News' refusal to kowtow to Donald Trump (he reportedly asked them for $5 million to participate in the debate, as if he were negotiating a hotel deal in Atlantic City), this member of the lamestream media is forced to make an admission he never thought he'd make: Fox News, you complete me!

One of the bigger fights of the evening broke out between Ted Cruz and moderator Chris Wallace. Cruz pointed out that nearly every question asked in the first part was actually an invitation for one of the other candidates to attack him. "If you guys ask one more mean question I may have to leave the stage," he announced, attempting to get another jab in at Trump.

Later, Wallace, referring to Cruz's lack of support from fellow Republicans, asked, "Does your style get in the way of your ability to get things done?" (Translation: "Do you think being hated by everyone in your own party is a problem?"). The senator's answer seemed to indicate that his dinner parties weren't terribly overcrowded.

As always, the candidates provided plenty of fun moments. Christie announced that President Obama had not been held accountable for his decisions, apparently forgetting that he had been re-elected. John Kasich, still operating under the theory that acting like the most reasonable person on the ballot would actually mean something this day and age, somehow managed to deny that he was an "establishment candidate." Cruz basically said that he would defeat ISIS by cutting taxes.

Speaking of ISIS, the terrorist organization has become an obsession for Rubio, who strongly implied that if he was president, torturing would resume at Guantanamo. The longer the primary season goes on, the more angry and vitriolic he seems to get. He was so pleasant last week chatting and joking with Jimmy Fallon, but put a podium in front of him and he begins to rant and rave as if his underwear were too tight.

This was the second debate to include questions from YouTube celebrities, and please, make it stop. Responding to a question posed by a woman named Dulcy Candy, Bush once again revealed his leering propensities, referring to her as a "beautiful young woman" and declaring, "That's a pretty cool name!"

Later, Bush, responding to a question about Hillary Clinton, revealed that he'd seen polls in which he would beat her in a general election. He didn't say that they'd been taken in his own home.

Rubio, who at one point graciously conceded that it was Jesus Christ, and not himself, who was the actual Savior, gave Bernie Sanders one of the few, if not only, mentions in the debate. "I think Bernie Sanders is a good candidate for president…of Sweden," he announced with perfect comic timing, forgetting only to add, "Oh, snap!"

Christie seemed to be in robotic mode, responding to every question, including one about Bridgegate, with an attack on Hillary. "The days of the Clintons in public housing are over!" he thundered, even while Bill was probably measuring drapes.

Carson (who actually responded to one question by gleefully saying, "Oh, that's great!") demonstrated his skill at memorization by rattling off the names of several Baltic countries, as if expecting bonus points for Lithuania. Later, in his closing statement, he bizarrely recited the opening passage of the Constitution.

The other candidates were equally eccentric in their closing statements, with Paul saying that he misses performing eye surgery (don’t worry, Rand, you'll have plenty of time for that soon); Christie once again evoking 9/11 and implying that his secret crime-fighting identity was Batman: Rubio acting as if he were personally chosen by God to lead us out of the wilderness; and Cruz informing us that there were only 93 hours to the Iowa caucuses.

More importantly, it's only 214 hours until the next Republican debate.

 

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