Israelis in general and Likudniks in particular would have felt right at home in the third Republican debate held in Boulder, Colorado on Tuesday night. First, the candidates raised their voices, sharpened their words and interrupted each other as if this was the Saturday night Israeli version of Meet the Press or a routine discussion in some Knesset committee.
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Second, and more importantly, the candidates’ mutual criticism paled in comparison to their consensual identification of their true enemy, the liberal press -- dubbed leftist in Israel -- which is gunning for their right-wing heads.
Marco Rubio said the media had a double standard, Ted Cruz claimed it was spewing nonsense, Mike Huckabee railed against the debasement of well-meaning public servants, Chris Christie put on a show of force against the gall of asking about Fantasy Football, Donald Trump blasted nasty and ridiculous questions and everyone compared the media’s obvious anti-conservative vendetta with the kid gloves with which they handle Hillary Clinton. After the debate had ended, Republican National Committee chairman Reince Priebus came out for a bonus round, this time against the widely derided CNBC moderators.
Like they would at any Likud Central Committee meeting, the repeated assaults on the perfidious press garnered the most enthusiastic applause from the audience in Boulder, as well as gleeful expressions of support from conservative observers tweeting at home, who seem to enjoy the Republican sawing of the branch on which they sit. And given that the most biting, concentrated attacks on the media came from Christie, Cruz and Rubio, it’s understandable why these three also topped the instant lists of winners compiled by analysts and commentators.
But let’s start at the opposite end: the big loser was certainly Jeb Bush, and not only because he didn’t participate in the anti-media feeding frenzy. Bush, who’s been suffering from a steep decline in the self-confidence of his donors and backers, was looking for a slam-dunk to restore his former glory. He carefully planned his attack on Marco Rubio, his main rival for the role of the relatively sane candidate, but walked instead into an ambush. Like a wily martial arts judoka, Rubio used his rival’s force against him, turning Bush’s diatribe against Rubio’s dismal voting attendance in the Senate into a devastating counterattack on Bush’s underhanded and self-defeating tactics. From that point onwards, even the moderators seemed to lose any interest in Bush.
The two unconventional leaders of the pack, Trump and Ben Carson, didn’t stand out among the pack one way or another. Trump tried to be as brash and biting as usual and even landed some harsh punches on Ohio Governor John Kasich, but for once he took a back seat behind other, more aggressive rivals: perhaps he was subdued by the knowledge that Carson had overtaken him for the first time in the national polls. Contrary to predictions, Trump refrained from attacking Carson, who is widely popular with primary voters. The former neurosurgeon, for his part, kept out of the limelight, speaking little, but even when he spoke it was hard to tell whether he was awake or napping. That’s the formula that’s brought him to this point and if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.
Mike Huckabee was sharp and impassioned, though he faces the insurmountable obstacle of overwhelming Evangelical support for Carson; Kasich lived up to his promise to be mad as hell and not take it anymore, but his moderate, centrist positions nonetheless cast him as a fish out of the conservative waters that surround him. Libertarian Rand Paul was curiously unengaged, and though she tried, Carly Fiorina couldn’t quite revive the fiery resolve that catapulted her upwards after previous debates.
The feisty Christie gave his best performance of the campaign by far, dulling the embarrassment caused him early this week by the news that an Amtrak conductor had ejected him from the quiet car for completely predictable reasons. Cruz was also in top form, with the added bonus of having unwittingly embarrassed Meet the Press host Chuck Todd who was taken aback by Cruz’s comparison of the recent Democrat debate to an argument between the pre-Russian revolution factions of Mensheviks and Bolsheviks. “Menshevik was new to me. Are they socialists who speak Yiddish?” Todd tweeted, much to the delight of his conservative “colleagues”.
This writer believes that Rubio was the clear cut winner among the ten top tier debaters, albeit on points and not by knockout, positioning himself as the most likely heir to the anti-establishment Trump and Carson, should they ever lose their current commanding lead. In the junior varsity debate, South Carolina Senator Lindsey Graham clearly outdid his rivals, though his over-the-top enthusiasm and total disregard for the moderators led some observers to wonder whether he had imbibed one or two too many.
The speculation was bolstered by Tuesday morning photos in the media of Graham and CNN reporter Dana Bash at local bar where they played a drinking game in which the eloquent senator was asked which women he would “date, marry or make vanish”. He might not make it all the way to the White House, but Graham certainly seems to be enjoying the ride itself far more than the others.