It was all quiet on the western front Tuesday night in Las Vegas as a highly anticipated clash between Donald Trump and the surging Texas Sen. Ted Cruz, the Republican presidential front-runners, failed to materialize.
Instead, both candidates held their fire, talked one another up and focused their efforts on warding off attacks from their rear flanks.
Cruz outshined Florida Sen. Marco Rubio during several contentious stanzas on bulk data collection, immigration and foreign policy in the Middle East, while Trump — as if he were swatting away a pesky fly — expended a surprising amount of time and energy slapping down attacks from a livelier and more resolute Jeb Bush.
Pundits across the spectrum had predicted a bloodbath between Trump and Cruz after tensions between the front-runners rose over the past week. Cruz reportedly questioned whether Trump has the judgment to be commander in chief at a private fundraiser. Shortly thereafter, Trump launched a counterattack against Cruz on social media in an attempt to bait him into a full-fledged brawl and called him a “maniac” for his conduct in the Senate — most notably his efforts in provoking a government shutdown in 2013.
Cruz: ‘We Will Build a Wall that Works, Trump Will Pay for It'[lz_jwplayer video=”nxphAD06″ ads=“false”]
Before the debate, fears were running rampant among conservatives that a feud between the two at this stage, with the Iowa caucus still one month out, could cause irreparable damage to both candidates and splinter the voter base.
Though there were plenty of opportunities for the apparent Trump-Cruz truce to disintegrate, especially as the CNN moderators giddily tried to bait each candidate into a sparring match, more sober and strategic foresight prevailed on both ends.
Both candidates were aware of the other’s strengths. Cruz understood that candidates who have challenged Trump in previous debates have walked away with black eyes, while Trump recognized that attacking Cruz, who is surging in Iowa, could backfire among voters in the ever-important early primary states.
Cruz passed on an easy shot at Trump by punting a questions about Trump’s controversial Muslim travel ban and instead went on to criticize President Obama’s reckless policies.
“Everyone understands why Donald has suggested what he has,” Cruz said.
The most heated confrontations of the night came between Cruz and Rubio, a rivalry of first-term senators that has been fermenting for several weeks. Cruz prevailed as the two traded blows over the government’s metadata collection programs, foreign policy and Rubio’s support for a pathway to citizenship for illegal immigrants.
Cruz, Rubio Spar over Amnesty[lz_jwplayer video=”anSRWQv2″ ads=“false”]
“Marco Rubio is falling short; Ted Cruz is beating him in every confrontation tonight,” tweeted Frank Luntz, a pollster who operated a focus group that analyzed the debate.
In continuing his modest performance, Trump also went out of his way to turn down an attack on Ben Carson, the soft-spoken retired neurosurgeon who, like Trump, tends to grow stronger with each attack.
But Trump showed no such mercy for an uncharacteristically aggressive and emboldened Bush, the former Florida governor, who continued his campaign of trying to paint Trump as not a “serious candidate,” pin him on his proposed Muslim ban and criticize his brash personality.
“Donald, you’re not going to be able to insult your way to the presidency,” Jeb said.
Bush’s campaign touted the attacks as a moral victory, but Trump just dismissed him as irrelevant because of his low poll numbers and sagging campaign.
Trump also made waves by reaffirming his commitment to stay in the GOP and even support the eventual Republican nominee. There had been considerable speculation that he would consider an independent run if the Republican Establishment failed to support him adequately.
While Tuesday’s debate was placid between the two candidates, if the polls continue to tighten, the kids gloves may come off and a full-out street brawl might just break out.