Following the Thursday GOP presidential debate, the campaigns are trying to make the most of their gains and minimize their problems coming out of feisty face-offs with their rivals.
Donald Trump is continuing to bash Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, over his "New York values" slur; Cruz responded with a snarky dig at liberal politicians, which was non-responsive considering his crack was about the values of New York. More forcefully, Trump is keeping the flap going about Cruz's Goldman Sachs and Citibank loans, telling Jake Tapper, "How are you going to be president if you didn't know about a million-dollar loan from Goldman Sachs? And you said it's something you don't know about, now he doesn't know that he was a Canadian citizen? I mean, that's in a way maybe worse than all the other things we're talking about."
Trump kept up his Tweet storm pointing to a news account regarding Cruz raising money at the home of two gay New York business men, calling Cruz a "hypocrite . . . [who] says one thing for money, does another for votes." That's Trump for you, and if Cruz is to prevent a defeat in his must-win state of Iowa, he will have to figure out some way to get off defense and get his message out. Right now he's running after fly balls Trump is hitting all over the park.
Then there is the tussle between New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie and Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla., over Christie's denial that he ever supported Justice Sonia Sotomayor's nomination to the Supreme Court. Christie on Friday claimed while he said in May 2009 she would not have been his pick, after her confirmation hearing, he did urge a vote. Christie told the Des Moines Register that in July 2009 he was telling the Senate: "Give them an up-or-down vote. If they don't have 51 votes in the Senate, they don't have 51 votes in the Senate, they don't get through. If they do, they do. But we shouldn't be using parliamentary tricks and games to hold people up. And so that's the basis of my support. And is she qualified? I think by anyone's measure she's qualified to be on the Supreme Court. She's not who I would nominate or appoint, but I can't say Justice Sotomayor is not qualified, and that is what I meant by those statements."
Unfortunately, his actual language in July 2009 was much more direct. ("I support her appointment to the Supreme Court and urge the Senate to keep politics out of the process and confirm her nomination. Qualified appointees should be confirmed and deserve bi-partisan support.") Rubio's oppo team is peppering reporters with Christie's remarks then and now, arguing that Christie misled voters in the debate and, in any case, supported the appointment. (So far fact-checkers agree with Rubio, and Christie is encountering extreme skepticism from conservative media.) Fact checkers also dinged Christie for suggesting Common Core had been eliminated entirely from his state. Christie writes this off as a senator "twisting words."
So does any of this matter? The particular details of these incidents do not, but in the final weeks before the caucuses, voters will lock in their impressions of the candidates. Are they slick pols? Is Trump just a mischief-maker? Who's conservative enough for them? There will be one more GOP debate, on Jan. 28, before the test of each campaign's ground game. Cruz is credited with having far and away the best organization, but the biggest mystery remains: How many of Trump's supporters will show up and did his good debate performance win over more voters?
Then there are the potential dropouts. Kasich says if he gets "smoked" in New Hampshire, he's out of the race. (Does that mean third or lower? Anything but a win?) Sen. Rand Paul, R-Ky., who is now a blip in the polls, vows to devote himself to making sure Trump does not get the nod. The most productive thing he can do in that regard then would be to drop out and urge anyone not getting a win, place or show in one of the first two contests to get out as well. Until the not-Trump-or-Cruz side of the race narrows to one or at most two candidates, Trump will do well. For those who think the election and the soul of the GOP are at risk, that means speeding up the process of elimination and consolidation.
In short, the debate arguments are going to be carried out over the next few days at least. Those arguments may determine - if voters care about the particulars or detect a pattern of flim-flammery - how the slots below Cruz and Trump are filled at the caucuses. Until all that plays out, Cruz, Rubio, Christie and to some extent Kasich (or Jeb Bush if he pulls off a miraculous comeback) remain in the hunt.
All they and their teams can do at this point is put their heads down and work.