Tonight the Republicans running for president will gather in Charleston, South Carolina, for the first debate of the new year. The number of contenders who will appear on the main stage has winnowed to seven—Rand Paul and Carly Fiorina failed to make the cut—but two can expect to field the lion’s share of the scrutiny: Donald Trump, who remains the frontrunner in national polls, and Ted Cruz, who increasingly looks like the single biggest obstacle to Trump actually winning the nomination.
Cruz is on tricky terrain this time. Trump’s faux-innocent queries about whether Cruz is eligible to serve as president, having been born in Canada, have been seconded by some putatively serious observers. A revelation from the New York Times, that Cruz failed to report a half-million dollar loan from Goldman Sachs during his 2012 Senate campaign, gives his rivals room to query his honesty. Many of them have likely been wanting to do so anyway. As William Saletan’s exegesis of Cruz’s immigration rhetoric suggests, the senator’s lawyerly debate skills have raised some eyebrows in a political discourse that supposedly prizes authenticity. And another New York Times report makes it clear that Cruz’s rivals have plenty of motive to take a few swings at him; as Jonathan Martin explains, Cruz has started to court supporters and donors in the Republican establishment.
Cracking the establishment is the logical next step in Cruz’s Katamari strategy, which is obviously going pretty well so far. So I’ll just add a couple of warnings for any establishment readers who find the Texas senator vexatious. First, Cruz does well on tricky terrain. He’s mentally equipped to handle the pressure and attacks from his fellow Republicans. Second, by March 1 it’s going to be too late for the establishment to coalesce around a mainstream alternative to Cruz or Trump. So those who are hoping that the eventual nominee is Jeb Bush, or Marco Rubio, or Chris Christie, etc, can’t afford to wait.
Meanwhile, the San Antonio Spurs have a showdown tonight with LeBron James and the Cleveland Cavaliers that should be well worth watching. Readers who choose the political spectacle, however, please feel free to follow along in the comments.