The Trump vs. Cruz Slugfest: Who Landed the Punches?

Donald Trump and Ted Cruz cross paths during a break at the GOP presidential debate in North Charleston, South Carolina, on January 14. Chris Keane/Reuters

This article first appeared on the American Enterprise Institute site.

With only two debates and less than 20 days before the Iowa caucuses, the GOP candidates descended on North Charleston, S.C., Thursday evening for a presidential debate hosted and live-streamed by Fox Business Network. This was the first debate in the 2016 campaign to have a repeat set of moderators in prime time, Neil Cavuto and Maria Bartiromo, who had also hosted FBN's November 10 event.

The GOP field remained wide enough at this point for both an undercard debate at 6 p.m. and one set for prime time. Placement depended on national, New Hampshire and Iowa polls. Candidates in the prime-time debate had to average in the top six in recent national polls, or in the top five in averages of polling out of Iowa and New Hampshire.

According to this criteria, the undercard debate featured Carly Fiorina, former Arkansas Governor Mike Huckabee and former Pennsylvania Senator Rick Santorum. Senator Rand Paul of Kentucky was also eligible but elected not to participate.

The 9 p.m. lineup had Donald Trump, Senators Ted Cruz of Texas and Marco Rubio of Florida, Ben Carson, New Jersey Governor Chris Christie, former Florida Governor Jeb Bush and Ohio Governor John Kasich.

Without further ado, here is what American Enterprise Institute scholars are thinking as the race heats up:

Michael Barone

Who advanced in Fox Business's debate in North Charleston? Not Ben Carson, who was pleasant but largely irrelevant. Not John Kasich, who curbed his manic tendency but relied too much, at least for this election cycle, on issues that strike today's voters as antique; very few know what his references to the Central America controversies of the 1980s were about.

The two candidates who are statistically tied for the lead in Iowa polls—Trump and Cruz—each had a high point and a low point in attacks on each other.

Cruz's high point was over the issue of his status as a natural-born citizen. Cruz nailed this, with a show of good humor in which he almost maintained his previous posture of not attacking Trump. Trump was even booed repeatedly by the audience, which perhaps some Iowa voters will dismiss as made up of "establishment" Republicans, but which seemed pretty devastating.

But Trump came back later with what appeared to be a heartfelt response to Cruz's recent charge that he embodies "New York values." Trump brought back to life those days when all of America had no doubt that the whole country had been struck when New York was attacked on September 11, 2001.

In effect, both candidates were hurt by their cheap shot attacks on each other—Trump's suggestion that Cruz might be disqualified from the presidency (which has no substance) and Cruz's suggestion that Trump is some kind of New York liberal (which he may well be on some issues, but Cruz provided no specifics).

Which one came out ahead? Not clear, at least to me. Both, by the way, struck strong notes in their indignation at the spectacle of American sailors humiliated by the Iranians.

The New Hampshire fight, for what appears now to be second place in the first-in-the-nation primary, was three-sided, among Cruz, Rubio and Christie. Christie made strong points on behalf of himself by attacking what he termed the Obama-Clinton policies and actions. I think he made less impact by his complaints about supposed squabbling between "two backbench senators."

Rubio and Cruz had their strongest interchanges on immigration, on which Rubio parried adroitly (though still on the defensive) from his support of the Gang of Eight bill in 2013 and on taxes, in which I think Rubio succeeded in sowing doubts about Cruz's VAT-like tax, whose details are dangerously unfamiliar to voters.

Rubio was not as pleasant and likable as in previous debates, but his strong riffs on foreign policy and gun control may work to his advantage. As the obvious likely target of several other candidates, he was largely though not completely successful in keeping the focus on his attacks on Barack Obama.

Karlyn Bowman

I didn't see a clear winner Thursday night. I saw three very effective counterpunchers in Trump, Cruz and Rubio, the leaders in most polls.

Trump's response to Cruz, in response to the New York values question, was deft, as was his response to the lines in Nikki Haley's post-State of the Union speech about anger. Saying he was angry appeared to be one of the top applause lines of the night. Cruz responded strongly to attacks, as did Rubio. Christie appeared forceful as well.

Bush always seems deeply knowledgeable, and he seemed stronger Thursday night. But early in the debate, Rubio had much more passion than Bush did when he said Hillary Clinton was "disqualified" to be president.

This is a year when Republicans want passion and strength. This also explains in part why Kasich and Carson made little progress Thursday night.

The hourlong undercard debate flew by, with many interesting exchanges.

Alex Brill

For much of Thursday night's debate, the candidates avoided any real discussion of economic policy other than a unanimous ridiculing of President Obama's State of the Union economic optimism. Beating on Democrats was a uniting motif, and many candidates—Cruz in particular—demonstrated a keen sense of humor not evident in previous debates.

Around the 95th minute, Rubio led a shift in the discussion. Countering Trump's trade war rhetoric, he noted that tariffs on Chinese goods could lead to higher prices for American consumers, while Trump countered that exchange rates would adjust to mitigate the effect. The crowd may have yawned, but at least it was a debate.

Tax policy finally took the stage near the end of the second hour, but the candidates failed to illuminate key questions about the fiscal adequacy of their proposals or how and if their tax plans will encourage work and investment in the U.S.

Overall, the candidates played to voters' genuine and legitimate economic and geopolitical insecurity, but again failed to clearly detail a positive economic agenda for more robust economic growth.

Timothy P. Carney

Cruz, Rubio and—in his own way—Trump are big-league debaters on a big-league stage. Picking a winner from among those three would be tough. Each took at least one round from the other two. But this is clear: Cruz, Rubio and Trump are in a class above the rest on the stage.

Trump continued to easily swat away Bush's buzzing. Christie's tough talk never connected. Kasich was discombobulated.

All of the worthwhile action was among Cruz, Rubio and Trump, and, frankly, this race seems pretty clearly to now be a race among those three.

Maura Corrigan

FBN hosted the sixth Republican presidential debate, featuring Trump, Cruz, Rubio, Carson, Christie, Bush and Kasich. Bravo to these articulate patriots for generally fine substantive performances on the tough issues facing our nation.

The candidates all criticized the current administration, and Democratic front-runners Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders, as failing the country and diminishing the American dream. On terrorism and security, Trump once again reaffirmed his desire to ban all Muslim entrants to the U.S., while Bush argued we must destroy the Islamic State militant group (ISIS).

As in previous debates, theater predominated. We witnessed entertaining but unhelpful distractions—like whether Cruz's birth in Canada disqualifies him because he is not a natural-born citizen—while Cruz attacked Trump for New York values, with Trump prevailing handily.

And Rubio went after Christie as Obama lite on various policy views, but Christie easily rebutted those claims. Rubio also strongly attacked Cruz on his flip-flop on votes affecting Iowa, for political purposes, and for failing to support national defense. Rubio convincingly contended that Clinton is disqualified from serving as commander in chief because of her lies relating to Benghazi and her mishandling of intelligence.

Trump justified his continuing angry tone because the country is "a mess." He resorted yet again to ad hominem attacks on Bush.

Kasich offered solutions to Americans concerned about their economic futures and police departments' use of force, while Carson complained about regulatory excess strangling business growth and noted that his tax plan had been ranked as the best by The Wall Street Journal.

We are now 18 days from the Iowa caucus. The candidates' views are well-known. Let the winnowing begin!

Jeffrey Eisenach

The good: Carson on traditional values and Bill Clinton's "indiscretions," and on the 21st-century threats (including cyber) that the president doesn't get; Rubio on American power, Obama taking away guns, free trade, Cruz's value-added tax and why Hillary can't be president; Bush on Boeing; Christie on allies and adversaries; and Trump on the reality of Syrian refugees.

The bad: Trump (and Kasich) on China and trade; Christie on why gun control is OK if you do it by statute rather than executive order.

The ugly: Trump vs. Cruz Round 1 (natural-born citizen) and Round 2 (New York values)—mutually assured destruction.

Special mention for self-contradiction: Bush on encryption.

Benedic Ippolito

For my money, the night's winner was probably Cruz, even if he did lose some traction on his "New York values" line of attack. Having said that, criticism of the way he sold his "business tax" (or value-added tax to the rest of us) was more than warranted.

While it is largely unseen to individuals, there is no question that consumers pay a portion of the tax. To clearly suggest otherwise strikes me as a deliberate attempt to take advantage of its lack of salience.

As for Trump's performance? To paraphrase the late movie critic Roger Ebert, Was it good? Was it bad? Does it matter? He is who he is. I don't think Thursday night changed much of anything.

Ramesh Ponnuru

Sparring between Cruz and Trump dominated the first half of the debate, and sparring between Cruz and Rubio dominated the second half.

In the first half, I think Cruz won the exchange over his constitutional eligibility for the presidency: He knows legal issues intimately, and Trump has got nothing to match that knowledge. Cruz lost the exchange about "New York values," on the other hand.

In the second half, I think Rubio won most of the exchanges. He hit Cruz on his value-added tax and on his flip-flops effectively, and Cruz's answers did not in my judgment put those issues away.

But Rubio gave Cruz a huge opportunity when he said that his thinking about our immigration system had changed because of the danger that terrorists will exploit its laxity. Cruz took it, noting that terrorism hadn't suddenly come into being in the past few years.

Overall, Cruz went far toward knocking down the constitutional argument about him, which had the potential to do serious damage. Losing the exchange about New York probably won't matter in the primaries. And Rubio's big liability, his stance on immigration, got a little bit worse.

So I'd say, advantage Cruz.

Derek M. Scissors

The most important thing to realize about the trade discussion Thursday night is that trade deficits do not mean lost jobs. Just as an example: In 2009 the economy got much weaker, and the trade deficit shrank. In 2006, a much better year, the trade deficit was larger.

The reason is that a strong economy means that there are more jobs and, at the same time, that Americans are doing well enough to buy more imports.

The problem in our trade relationship with China is not the trade deficit. It's not China selling cheap goods—they benefit millions of Americans. The problems are them stealing our intellectual property and protecting their state-owned enterprises from our competition. These problems can't be solved with tariffs.

Christina Hoff Sommers

One of the best questions of the night was wasted on Carson. He was asked if Bill Clinton's sexual history was a legitimate topic for criticism in the campaign. Carson drifted off into a vague disquisition about Internet commenters. Wrong answer.

Correct answer. Bill Clinton's sexual history is not relevant to the campaign, but Hillary was part of that history, and it is legitimate to ask questions about her role. And her role is of interest, not because Trump bought it up but because Hillary herself has made it an issue.

Here are her words in a recent campaign ad directed at progressive college women: "To every survivor of sexual assault…you have the right to be heard. You have the right to be believed. We're with you."

Reporters, candidates and voters would be remiss not to ask the former first lady a simple question. Does that apply to the women who accused Bill Clinton of harassment (Paula Jones ), sexual assault (Kathleen Willey) and rape (Juanita Broaddrick)?

Do they have a right to be believed. If not, why?

Joel M. Zinberg

Initially, the candidates, particularly Christie, Rubio and Bush, seemed refocused on attacking Hillary Clinton. But that didn't last, as Rubio and Cruz stole the spotlight with their attacks against each other. Clearly, they have identified each other as the chief competition.

The others, with the possible exception of Christie, seemed to fade into the background. Carson came across as an avuncular guest dispensing folksy aphorisms. Trump was the Donald: bombastic, unfocused and short on details, although his response to Cruz on "New York values" hit home.

Bush made little impression. And Kasich, as usual, focused on his record and compassion, subjects that seem to be of little interest to this year's primary voters.

One can't help but feel that the field has narrowed to Trump, Rubio, Cruz and Christie.

Benjamin Zycher

Well, all seven of the candidates agree: Each of them would be better than Hillary. No argument there. Beyond that, I could emphasize the positive, find common ground and bring everyone together. But…that's not my style. So a few lowlights of the evening:

  • Kasich still believes, fervently, in "energy independence." Has no one told him that it is irrelevant? That there is one world market for petroleum, and supply disruptions affect all nations more or less equally, regardless of whether they import all or none of their oil? Apparently not.
  • Blended in with the Donald's nastiness is a glaring ignorance: A bilateral trade deficit is utterly irrelevant. My family's bilateral trade deficit with the local supermarket is enormous, as we buy all our groceries there and sell them absolutely nothing. So what? And can it possibly be the case that the Donald does not understand that the depreciating yuan/renminbi is a sign of Chinese economic weakness rather than cunning? (It reflects declining demand for Chinese assets.) Well, yes; it is more than merely possible.
  • Many of the candidates seem enamored of a "simple" tax with no deductions and other preferences. Does no one understand that such a tax cannot be a political equilibrium? Representative democracy is the art of transferring wealth from large unorganized groups to concentrated interests, and specific tax preferences serve that end beautifully. That is why the Reagan tax reform of 1986—a dramatic simplification of the tax code—eroded over time into the monstrosity that we see today.
  • Abolish the Internal Revenue Service, file taxes on a postcard, etc.? Really? Who will define "income" to be taxed—that is, the tax base? This is just silliness.
  • Amazingly, Christie wants (1) the marijuana laws enforced and (2) safer streets. Can it possibly be the case that he is blind to the upward pressure on crime created by the war on drugs, the single most insane policy that the U.S. government pursues? As with the Donald above: Yes; it is more than merely possible. Wow.

Michael Barone, a resident fellow at the American Enterprise Institute and co-author of the annual Almanac of American Politics (National Journal Group), is a senior political analyst for the Washington Examiner. Karlyn Bowman is a senior fellow and research coordinator at AEI. Alex Brill is a resident fellow at AEI. Timothy P. Carney is a visiting fellow, Culture of Competition Project, at the AEI.

Maura Corrigan is a visiting fellow at AEI. Jeffrey Eisenach is a visiting scholar at AEI. Benedic Ippolito is a research fellow in economic policy studies at AEI. Ramesh Ponnuru is a visiting fellow at the AEI, a senior editor for National Review and a columnist for Bloomberg View. Derek M. Scissors is a resident scholar at AEI. Christina Hoff Sommers is a resident scholar at AEI. Joel Zinberg is a visiting scholar at AEI. Benjamin Zycher is the John G. Searle chair and a resident scholar at AEI.