Win-win. After last night, it’s Trump v. Cruz.

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Good morning Austin:

I thought the results of last night’s debate were remarkably clear.

Both Ted Cruz and Donald Trump emerged as the winners, with the race coming into focus ahead of the start of voting on Feb. 1 with the Iowa caucuses, as really a two-man race.

This was especially a triumph for Cruz because he was really being tested, and on the defensive, for the first time in the campaign coming into the debate, and because, in the moment, he did something that hadn’t been done before by any candidate in any of these debates – gone one-on-one with Trump and clearly won, forcefully challenging Trump’s raising birther claims against the Canadian-born Cruz.

Yet Trump also did well and had perhaps his best and most measured moment of any debate with his sober umbrage at Cruz’s slight about New York values, which was really a misbegotten gambit by Cruz.

Other candidates had their moments, but none did anything to divert the media and public gaze from the very interesting Cruz-Trump dynamic – the Ivy League debate champion vs. the natural.

And, while they will obviously be savaging each other in the weeks to come, it is a much healthier relationship than the way-too calculated, self-interested sycophancy that Cruz had displayed toward Trump, hiding the light of his killer instinct under a bushel.

“This is a two-person race,” Joe Scarborough said today on Morning Joe.

It may get uglier, but I also glimpsed the makings of a kind of buddy-movie chemistry that could ultimately yield a ticket, though I suppose it would have to be Trump-Cruz because a Trump vice presidency simply doesn’t compute.

“I guess the bromance is over,” Trump said afterward. “He didn’t have to go so aggressive.”

“He’s a good debater, but he’s very strident,” Trump said of Cruz on Morning Joe today. Of his attack on New York values, Trump said, “He lost about 20 million votes last night.”

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But I think it’s just possible that this could gestate into a reborn bromance, a la Robin Hood and Little John.

Cruz and Trump seem a lot more organically simpatico than, for example, Ronald Reagan and George Bush, who had blasphemed the Gipper as a snake-oil salesman of voodoo economics.

Florida Sen. Marco Rubio’s performance won a lot of praise, like this from Charles Krauthammer on Fox.

The clear winner, would have been — as always, as usual — Rubio. … Rubio, as always, had a combination of articulateness and passion. And that passion is there all the time.

But I really didn’t see it.

Rubio failed to muscle in on the real Trump-Cruz action.

His answers always seem a little too rehearsed and too determined to prove that he’s a big boy.

My suggestion is that at the next debate he gray his hair to approximate what he’ll look like after eight years of aging at the astonishing Obama rate.

And his big barrage against Cruz came too late in the overlong debate, and had a rushed, desperate kitchen-sink quality to it, though, for example, Joe Scarborough thought he had, with it, “eviscerated” Cruz’s inconsistent conservative record.

“That was a really damning moment for Cruz,” he said.

Maybe it was a fusillade that will launch a thousand memes, but I’m skeptical.

Here was the back and forth between Cruz and Trump on whether Cruz is constitutionally eligible to serve as president.

Neil CAVUTO: All right. Welcome back to the Republican presidential <debate>, right here in North Charleston, South Carolina. Let’s get right back to the questions. And I’ll start with you, Senator Cruz.

Now you are, of course, a strict constitutionalist — no one would doubt that. And as you know, the U.S. Constitution says only natural-born citizens are eligible for the office of president of the United States. Stop me if you’ve heard this before. Now, you were born…

(LAUGHTER)

… you were born in Canada to an American mother. So you were and are considered an American citizen. But that fellow next to you, Donald Trump — and others — have said that being born in Canada means you are not natural-born, and that has raised questions about your eligibility.

Do you want to try to close this topic once and for all tonight?

CRUZ: Well, Neil, I’m glad we’re focusing on the important topics of the evening.

(LAUGHTER)

(APPLAUSE)

You know, back in September, my friend Donald said that he had had his lawyers look at this from every which way, and there was no issue there. There was nothing to this birther issue.

(LAUGHTER)

Now, since September, the Constitution hasn’t changed.

(LAUGHTER)

But the poll numbers have.

(APPLAUSE)

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And I recognize — I recognize that Donald is dismayed that his poll numbers are falling in Iowa. But the facts and the law here are really quite clear. Under longstanding U.S. law, the child of a U.S. citizen born abroad is a natural-born citizen.

If a soldier has a child abroad, that child is a natural-born citizen. That’s why John McCain, even though he was born in Panama, was eligible to run for president.

If an American missionary has a child abroad, that child is a natural-born citizen. That’s why George Romney, Mitt’s dad, was eligible to run for president, even though he was born in Mexico.

At the end of the day, the legal issue is quite straightforward, but I would note that the birther theories that Donald has been relying on — some of the more extreme ones insist that you must not only be born on U.S. soil, but have two parents born on U.S. soil.

Under that theory, not only would I be disqualified, Marco Rubio would be disqualified, Bobby Jindal would be disqualified and, interestingly enough, Donald J. Trump would be disqualified.

(APPLAUSE)

(UNKNOWN): Not me.

CRUZ: Because — because Donald’s mother was born in Scotland. She was naturalized. Now, Donald…

TRUMP: But I was born here.

CRUZ: … on the issue — on the issue of citizenship, Donald…

TRUMP: (inaudible). Big difference.

CRUZ: … on the issue of citizenship, Donald, I’m not going to use your mother’s birth against you.

TRUMP: OK, good. Because it wouldn’t work.

CRUZ: You’re an American, as is everybody else on this stage, and I would suggest we focus on who’s best prepared to be commander-in-chief, because that’s the most important question facing the country.

(APPLAUSE)

CAVUTO: Mr. Trump…

(CROSSTALK)

CAVUTO: … that you raised it because of his rising poll numbers.

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TRUMP: … first of all, let me just tell you something — and you know, because you just saw the numbers yourself — NBC Wall Street Journal just came out with a poll — headline: Trump way up, Cruz going down. I mean, so don’t — so you can’t — you can’t…

(BOOING)

… they don’t like the Wall Street Journal. They don’t like NBC, but I like the poll.

(LAUGHTER)

And frankly, it just came out, and in Iowa now, as you know, Ted, in the last three polls, I’m beating you. So — you know, you shouldn’t misrepresent how well you’re doing with the polls.

(APPLAUSE)

You don’t have to say that. In fact, I was all for you until you started doing that, because that’s a misrepresentation, number one.

TRUMP: Number two, this isn’t me saying it. I don’t care. I think I’m going to win fair and square (inaudible) to win this way. Thank you.

Lawrence Tribe and (inaudible) from Harvard — of Harvard, said that there is a serious question as to whether or not Ted can do this. OK? There are other attorneys that feel, and very, very fine constitutional attorneys, that feel that because he was not born on the land, he cannot run for office.

Here’s the problem. We’re running. We’re running. He does great. I win. I choose him as my vice presidential candidate, and the Democrats sue because we can’t take him along for the ride. I don’t like that. OK?

(LAUGHTER)

The fact is — and if for some reason he beats the rest of the field, he beats the rest of the field (inaudible). See, they don’t like that. They don’t like that.

(AUDIENCE BOOING)

No, they don’t like he beats the rest of the field, because they want me.

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(LAUGHTER)

But — if for some reason, Neil, he beats the rest of the field, I already know the Democrats are going to be bringing a suit. You have a big lawsuit over your head while you’re running. And if you become the nominee, who the hell knows if you can even serve in office? So you should go out, get a declaratory judgment, let the courts decide. And you shouldn’t have mentioned the polls because I would have been much…

(CROSSTALK)

CAVUTO: Why are you saying this now — right now? Why are you raising this issue now?

TRUMP: Because now he’s going a little bit better. No, I didn’t care (inaudible). It’s true. No, it’s true. Hey look, he never had a chance. Now, he’s doing better. He’s got probably a four or five percent chance.

(LAUGHTER)

(CROSSTALK)

CRUZ: Neil…

(CROSSTALK)

TRUMP: The fact is, there is a big overhang. There’s a big question mark on your head. And you can’t do that to the party. You really can’t. You can’t do that to the party. You have to have certainty. Even if it was a one percent chance, and it’s far greater than one percent because (inaudible).

I mean, you have great constitutional lawyers that say you can’t run. If there was a — and you know I’m not bringing a suit. I promise. But the Democrats are going to bring a lawsuit, and you have to have certainty. You can’t have a question. I can agree with you or not, but you can’t have a question over your head.

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CAVUTO: Senator, do you want to respond?

CRUZ: Well, listen, I’ve spent my entire life defending the Constitution before the U.S. Supreme Court. And I’ll tell you, I’m not going to be taking legal advice from Donald Trump.

TRUMP: You don’t have to. Take it from Lawrence Tribe.

(APPLAUSE)

(CROSSTALK)

TRUMP: Take it from your professors…

(CROSSTALK)

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CRUZ: The chances of any litigation proceeding and succeeding on this are zero. And Mr. Trump is very focused…

TRUMP: He’s wrong. He’s wrong.

CRUZ: … on Larry Tribe. Let me tell you who Larry Tribe is. He’s a left-wing judicial activist, Harvard Law professor who was Al Gore’s lawyer in Bush versus Gore. He’s a major Hillary Clinton supporter. And there’s a reason why Hillary’s supporters are echoing Donald’s attacks on me, because Hillary…

TRUMP: He is not the only one.

CRUZ: … wants to face Donald Trump in the general election.

TRUMP: There are many lawyers.

CRUZ: And I’ll tell you what, Donald, you — you very kindly just a moment ago offered me the V.P. slot.

(LAUGHTER) I’ll tell you what. If this all works out, I’m happy to consider naming you as V.P. So if you happen to be right, you could get the top job at the end of the day.

TRUMP: No — no…

(LAUGHTER)

… I think if it doesn’t…

(APPLAUSE)

I like that. I like it. I’d consider it. But I think I’ll go back to building buildings if it doesn’t work out.

CRUZ: Actually, I’d love to get you to build a wall.

(CROSSTALK)

TRUMP: I have a feeling it’s going to work out, actually.

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Cruz showed confidence and wit. It was much better for him to be answering these questions toe-to-toe with Trump than having to answer Trump’s questions posed by reporters on TV or at press gaggles on the trail. And Trump almost sweetly conceded that he had only played the birther card because Cruz was gaining some traction in the campaign.

This is probably not an issue that is going to go away. Indeed, MSNBC’s Chris Matthews – he of the odd passions – seems all-in on a crusade that Cruz is a natural-born Canadian, but not a natural-born American citizen.

But Cruz managed to turn an existential threat to his candidacy last night into a debate triumph.

Cruz’s performance was especially effective coming directly after delivering a state-of-the-art reply to questions raised in a New York Times story in Thursday’s paper about loans he had received for his  2012 Senate campaign against David Dewhurst.

MARIA BARTIROMO: Senator Cruz, the New York Times is reporting that you failed to properly disclose a million dollars in loans from Goldman Sachs and CitiBank. During your senate race, your campaign said, “it was inadvertent.” A million dollars is inadvertent?

CRUZ: Well Maria, thank you for passing on that hit piece in the front page of the New York Times. You know the nice thing about the mainstream media, they don’t hide their views. The New York Times a few weeks back had a columnist who wrote a column saying, “Anybody But Cruz.” Had that actually — that same columnist wrote a column comparing me to an evil demonic spirit from the move, “It Follows” that jumps apparently from body to body possessing people.

So you know the New York Times and I don’t have exactly have the warmest of relationships. Now in terms of their really stunning hit piece, what they mentioned is when I was running for senate — unlike Hillary Clinton, I don’t have masses of money in the bank, hundreds of millions of dollars. When I was running for senate just about every lobbyist, just about all of the establishment opposed me in the senate race in Texas and my opponent in that race was worth over 200 million dollars. He put a 25 million dollar check up from his own pocket to fund that campaign and my wife Heidi and I, we ended up investing everything we owned.

We took a loan against our assets to invest it in that campaign to defend ourselves against those attacks. And the entire New York times attack — is that I disclosed that loan on one filing with the United States Senate, that was a public filing. But it was not on a second filing with FDIC and yes, I made a paperwork error disclosing it on one piece of paper instead of the other. But if that’s the best the New York Times has got, they better go back to the well.

BARTIROMO: Thank you.

For a Republican candidate, being able to tee off on the New York Times is really a gift, and Cruz exploited it to a tee.

But Cruz really kind of blew it when he persisted in his attack on New York values – when he really didn’t have to and when he and Trump had already rehearsed their parts in public in a way that precisely forecast that it was a loser for Cruz and that the exchange that would reveal something heretofore unseen in Trump – a soul.

BARTIROMO: Senator…

(APPLAUSE)

… let me follow up and switch gears.

Senator Cruz, you suggested Mr. Trump, quote, “embodies New York values.” Could you explain what you mean by that?

CRUZ: You know, I think most people know exactly what New York values are.

(LAUGHTER)

BARTIROMO: I am from New York. I don’t.

CRUZ: What — what — you’re from New York? So you might not.

(LAUGHTER)

But I promise you, in the state of South Carolina, they do.

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(APPLAUSE)

And listen, there are many, many wonderful, wonderful working men and women in the state of New York. But everyone understands that the values in New York City are socially liberal or pro-abortion or pro- gay-marriage, focus around money and the media.

And — and I would note indeed, the reason I said that is I was asked — my friend Donald has taken to … playing Bruce Springsteen’s “Born in the USA”, and I was asked what I thought of that.

And I said, “well, if he wanted to play a song, maybe he could play, ‘New York, New York’?” And — and — you know, the concept of New York values is not that complicated to figure out.

Not too many years ago, Donald did a long interview with Tim Russert. And in that interview, he explained his views on a whole host of issues that were very, very different from the views he’s describing now.

And his explanation — he said, “look, I’m from New York, that’s what we believe in New York. Those aren’t Iowa values, but this is what we believe in New York.” And so that was his explanation.

And — and I guess I can — can frame it another way. Not a lot of conservatives come out of Manhattan. I’m just saying.

(LAUGHTER)

BARTIROMO: Are you sure about that?

(A Texan learns New York values.)

CAVUTO: Maria…

TRUMP: So conservatives actually do come out of Manhattan, including William F. Buckley and others, just so you understand.

(APPLAUSE)

(When William Buckley ran for mayor of New York)

(When William Buckley ran for mayor of New York)

And just so — if I could, because he insulted a lot of people. I’ve had more calls on that statement that Ted made — New York is a great place. It’s got great people, it’s got loving people, wonderful people.

When the World Trade Center came down, I saw something that no place on Earth could have handled more beautifully, more humanely than New York. You had two one hundred…

(APPLAUSE)

… you had two 110-story buildings come crashing down. I saw them come down. Thousands of people killed, and the cleanup started the next day, and it was the most horrific cleanup, probably in the history of doing this, and in construction. I was down there, and I’ve never seen anything like it.

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And the people in New York fought and fought and fought, and we saw more death, and even the smell of death — nobody understood it. And it was with us for months, the smell, the air.

TRUMP: And we rebuilt downtown Manhattan, and everybody in the world watched and everybody in the world loved New York and loved New Yorkers. And I have to tell you, that was a very insulting statement that Ted made.

(APPLAUSE)

Well, my go-to person for debate tweets is, of course, Mia Farrow.

A new NBC-Wall Street Journal poll released Thursday suggested the interesting state of the race – with both Trump and Cruz improving their positions.

CHARLESTON, S.C. — Donald Trump has more than doubled his national lead in the Republican presidential race ahead of Thursday night’s GOP debate here, according to the results from a new NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll.

Trump is the first choice of 33 percent of national Republican primary voters – his highest percentage in the poll. He’s followed by Ted Cruz at 20 percent, Marco Rubio at 13 percent and Ben Carson at 12 percent. Chris Christie and Jeb Bush are tied at five percent. No other Republican presidential candidate gets more than 3 percent.

Trump’s 13-point lead over Cruz is an increase from last month, when he held a five-point advantage over the Texas senator, 27 percent to 22 percent.

But, keep reading:

Yet in a hypothetical one-on-one race between the two Republicans, Cruz tops Trump, 51 percent to 43 percent, while Trump beats Rubio in their one-on-one matchup, 52 percent to 45 percent.

In a three-way contest featuring the Top 3 Republicans in the poll, Trump gets 40 percent, Cruz 31 percent and Rubio 26 percent, underscoring the overall strengthen out of the outsider/insurgent wing of the Republican Party.

Maybe the most striking finding in this NBC/WSJ poll is the growing GOP acceptance of Trump. Back in March, only 23 percent of Republican primary voters said they could see themselves supporting the real-estate mogul. Now that number stands at 65 percent.

So, if Cruz doesn’t want to end up on the bottom end of a Trump ticket, he needs to lose Rubio.

And, conversely, Rubio has got to wound Cruz.

RUBIO: Ted Cruz, you used to say you supported doubling the number of green cards, now you say that you’re against it. You used to support a 500 percent increase in the number of guest workers, now you say that you’re against it. You used to support legalizing people that were here illegally, now you say you’re against it. You used to say that you were in favor of birthright citizenship, now you say that you are against it.

And by the way, it’s not just on immigration, you used to support TPA, now you say you’re against it. I saw you on the Senate floor flip your vote on crop insurance because they told you it would help you in Iowa, and last week, we all saw you flip your vote on ethanol in Iowa for the same reason.

(APPLAUSE)

That is not consistent conservatism, that is political calculation. When I am president, I will work consistently every single day to keep this country safe, not call Edward Snowden, as you did, a great public servant. Edward Snowden is a traitor. And if I am president and we get our hands on him, he is standing trial for treason.

(APPLAUSE)

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And one more point, one more point. Every single time that there has been a Defense bill in the Senate, three people team up to vote against it. Bernie Sanders, Rand Paul and Ted Cruz. In fact, the only budget you have ever voted for, Ted, in your entire time in the Senate is a budget from Rand Paul that brags about how it cuts defense.

Here’s the bottom line, and I’ll close with this. If I’m president of the United States and Congress tries to cut the military, I will veto that in a millisecond.

(APPLAUSE)

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BUSH: There’s — look, there’s —

CAVUTO: Gentlemen, gentlemen —

CRUZ: I’m going to get a response to that, Neil. There’s no way he launches 11 attack —

CAVUTO: Very quick, very quick.

CRUZ: I’m going to — he had no fewer than 11 attacks there. I appreciate your dumping your oppo research folder on the stage.

RUBIO: No, it’s your record.

CRUZL But I will say —

CAVUTO: Do you think they like each other?

CRUZ: — at least half of the things Marco said are flat-out false. They’re absolutely false.

AUDIENCE: Boo.

CRUZ: So let’s start — let’s start with immigration. Let’s start with immigration and have a little bit of clarity. Marco stood with Chuck Schumer and Barack Obama on amnesty. I stood with Jeff Sessions and Steve King. Marco stood today, standing on this stage Marco supports legalization and citizenship for 12 million illegals. I opposed and oppose legalization and citizenship.

And by the way, the attack he keeps throwing out on the military budget, Marco knows full well I voted for his amendment to increase military spending to $697 billion. What he said, and he said it in the last <debate>, it’s simply not true. And as president, I will rebuild the military and keep this country safe.

CAVUTO: All right, gentlemen, we’ve got to stop. I know you are very passionate about that.

I thought it was impressive that Cruz kept a count – 11 – on how many attacks Rubio had just launched on him, and, quickly did the math in his head that “at least half” were untrue, suggesting that almost half were true.

But, as I said earlier, it seemed too much too late from Rubio.

From Matthew Yglesias at VOX:

Ted Cruz dominated the Fox Business News Republican primary debate in South Carolina. He went toe-to-toe with Donald Trump and with Marco Rubio. He didn’t slay either of them, but they didn’t slay him. Best of all, he was centrally positioned throughout the evening — someone who speaks for grassroots discontent with the GOP establishment, but someone who does so from a standpoint of a conservatism that is much deeper and more authentic than Donald Trump’s.

The center of the party is a good position to hold in a primary, and Cruz firmly seized that middle ground. With Trump exerting a gravitational influence on the shape of the race, a guy who stood on the margin of the Senate Republican caucus suddenly looks like a useful bridge between Republican officialdom and the conservative grassroots. He’s not well-liked by the party leadership in Washington, but he’s intensely in touch with what committed conservatives think and care about.

 He combines disloyalty to the party with intense loyalty to the cause in a way that makes him well-positioned to further rise as the field inevitably narrows. 2015 was all about Trump, but 2016’s first debate showed that the main concrete impact of Trump has been to transform Cruz into a potentially unifying figure.

 

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