Frontrunner Donald Trump and his nearest rival Ted Cruz kissed and made up on stage at the year’s last Republican primary debates on Tuesday night, belying expectations of a fierce fight.
They waged instead their own respective side wars – Trump scrapping with his old foe Jeb Bush, and Cruz taking on fellow first-time senator Marco Rubio, both of Cuban decent.
No one was the clear winner, pundits agreed next morning.
Trump was centre stage once again, being the frontrunner, and dominated the debate with most rivals asked by moderators to explain their position vis-a-vis Trump’s on many issues.
Even Trump, who can normally never get enough of himself, complained to moderators when Bush got yet another “Trump has said this, what do you think?” kind of question.
But the flashy businessman, who flubbed some key national security questions – he had no clue about the “nuclear triad”, for instance – still managed to make news, something he does very well.
He finally laid to rest all talk about a third-party, independent run for the White House if he failed to secure the Republican nomination. He will not run then, he said.
“No chance,” Trump said.
He was asked by one moderator if he is ready to assure “Republicans tonight that you will run as a Republican and abide by the decision of the Republicans”. Trump said: “I really am. I’ll be honest, I really am.”
That was the clearest, unqualified guarantee Trump has given so far on a subject that worries Republicans a lot — a third-party run by him will ensure a Democratic victory, they believe.
For the most anticipated showdown with Cruz, continuing their recent exchanges, he ducked when asked, saying, “He’s (Cruz is) just fine. Don’t worry about it.” But he wasn’t so amiable with Bush, who attacked Trump constantly, calling him a “chaos candidate” who will make a “chaos president”, and urged him to stop insulting rivals.
“Donald, you’re not going to be able to insult your way to the presidency,” Bush told Trump. The exchange soon turned nasty, with Trump throwing the gap in their polling numbers at Bush.
Bush got under Trump’s skin this time, most pundits concluded.
Cruz and Rubio had been circling each other in recent days, setting up a showdown, and it happened Tuesday night – with Cruz attacking Rubio on immigration, where he is vulnerable.
Rubio, whose command of national security issues is widely acclaimed, attacked Cruz on his opposition to bringing down dissectors and despots such as Syria’s Bashar al-Assad. But no one won this exchange.
New Jersey governor Chris Christie had his moments setting himself up as the doer. And so did former HP CEO Carly Fiorina, the only woman in the Republican race.
In the undercard race, those disqualified from the main debate because of low polling numbers, Senator Lindsey Graham continued to impress with his wit and foreign policy chops.