“The two people to watch are Cruz and Rubio,” Charles Krauthammer declared on Tuesday’s episode of Fox News’ "Special Report." Call it wishful thinking or conventional wisdom (or both), but there is an assumption that this clash of titans might eventually occur—and I, for one, am rooting for it. When Jeb Bush, scion of the Bush dynasty, entered the race -- and promptly began raising tens of millions of dollars -- it was assumed his presence would crowd out support for his former protégé, Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla. Meanwhile, Donald Trump has not just led, but dominated , national and state polls for about four months, now, presumably sucking up support from experienced politicians, including Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas.
Most people I know think a Trump candidacy would be disastrous, but there is division regarding just how freaked out we should be. Some, like statistician Nate Silver, argue that we are putting too much stock in these early polls showing Trump ahead for a variety of reasons, including the fact that “the vast majority of eventual Republican voters haven’t made up their minds yet.”
Others argue that this is fantasy . All the previous predictions about a Trump collapse were premature, and besides, he’s a paradigm-shifting candidate; the old rules no longer apply.
Having said all that, it’s not absurd to believe that voters will finally come to their senses, and that Cruz and Rubio might eventually emerge as representatives of their various “lanes” to face off in a sort of championship battle to determine who will represent the GOP in the general election.
Rubio has been performing well since the third Republican debate, and a new Quinnipiac poll of likely caucus-goers found Cruz narrowly trailing Trump 25-23 in Iowa (the assumption being that, in the wake of the Nov. 13 terrorist attacks in Paris, Cruz might have supplanted Ben Carson among some of Iowa’s evangelical voters).
Part of the reason this possibility exists is that Rubio and Cruz have both run smart campaigns that might even be described as “stealthy.”
Both bided their time, perhaps having learned that there is a danger in peaking too soon. Rather than trying to insert himself into every news cycle, Rubio mostly kept his head down and played his own game. Meanwhile, Cruz assiduously avoided criticizing Trump, hoping to one day inherit some of his support. He focused, instead, on building a grassroots infrastructure at the state level.
When compared to other candidates (say, like Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker, who followed a “go big or go home” philosophy), Rubio and Cruz were wise to play the long game. You can’t win every day, so you keep showing up and doing your best. I’m reminded of what former Baltimore Oriole John Lowenstein once said : “I never look at the standings until August. You just play hard and see where it gets you.” When sports reporter Richard Justice asked if he then starts worrying about the standings, Lowenstein quipped: “By then it’s too late.”
Rubio and Cruz seem to have employed a similar philosophy. They avoided the temptation to worry about “winning the day,” and focused on the long game. And as we look toward the “playoffs,” both are in serious contention. If running a good campaign says something about your ability to govern (and there are differing theories on that) Rubio and Cruz have demonstrated a certain pluck.
Earlier I said I was rooting for this matchup, and that’s not merely because this would be fun for a spectator to watch.
The truth is that Republicans are at a crossroads. What we are seeing is a surrogate battle to determine whether the GOP will be a sort of populist/protectionist party, or a more cosmopolitan and compassionate one. And if those are the two world views that will eventually clash, Cruz and Rubio are much better representatives than, say, Trump and Bush.
Let’s be clear, Rubio and Cruz are both well within the spectrum of conservatism. Both were conservative insurgents who, with the help of the tea party, defeated powerful establishment Republicans in a primary (Rubio bested Florida Gov. Charlie Crist and Cruz defeated Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst (Disclosure: My wife advised Cruz on his 2012 Senate primary and general election campaigns).
Rubio and Cruz are both the sons of Cuban immigrants, both are young (44), and both are first-term senators. Both are masters of a certain brand of politics; Rubio taps into a sort of compassion and inspiration, while Cruz is a master at channeling indignation.
Both of these impulses—optimism and outrage—are powerful motivating forces. Both represent disparate strains within the conservative movement. And one supposes that Bush and Trump could potentially fill these roles, but not nearly as well when it comes to winning a general election.
And—more importantly—both can defeat Hillary Rodham Clinton next November.
Matt K. Lewis is a senior contributor at the Daily Caller and author of the forthcoming book "Too Dumb to Fail: How the GOP Betrayed the Reagan Revolution to Win Elections (and How It Can Reclaim Its Conservative Roots)."
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