The Drudge Report summarized Thursday night’s GOP debate, which frontrunner Donald Trump skipped, with the headline: “The Seven Dwarfed!”
That assessment matches the consensus, left and right, from media observers: that Trump benefited from staging a fundraiser for wounded veterans, where he appeared relaxed, magnanimous, and in command, rather than placing himself in the crosshairs of the Fox News moderators and his Republican rivals.
The Washington Post‘s Dan Balz wrote that Sens. Ted Cruz (R-TX) and Marco Rubio (R-FL), two of Trump’s main rivals, had “failed to seize the Trumpless moment,” opening new space for struggling GOP rivals. Even Jim Geraghty of National Review, which devoted its last issue to attacking Trump, conceded that Trump had likely benefited from avoiding the “flip-flopping immigration bloodbath” that the GOP debate became in his absence.
The Cruz camp appears to have made a strategic miscalculation. By sticking with the debate, and accusing Trump of cowardice, Cruz hoped to place himself at the head of the anti-Trump opposition. Instead, however, he exposed himself to a gang-tackle by the moderators and the other candidates. Had he joined Trump in protest at Fox News’ behavior, he would have signaled that he and Trump were the prohibitive final two candidates in the GOP primary.
Trump may have drawn Cruz into a direct fight before the conservative Tea Party favorite from Texas was fully prepared for it. As strong as his organization is in Iowa, Cruz’s political challenge remains distinguishing himself from the rest of the field, rather than overtaking Trump.
While ratings for the Fox News debate were still high, they were about half of the ratings for the first Fox News debate last August. Ratings for Trump’s fundraiser, carried on several networks, are not available as of this writing.