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Can Texas Sen. Ted Cruz handle the scrutiny?
Donald Trump has maintained his strength in polls despite sharp questions from moderators during the GOP debates, constant attacks from his rivals and the media carefully examining his every word. But both Ben Carson and Carly Fiorina briefly vaulted from fringe candidates to front-runners and then immediately plunged back down when they faced the scrutiny that comes with high poll numbers.
Cruz has now surged in national polls and leads in the key early state of Iowa. His rivals, particularly Florida Sen. Marco Rubio and Trump, are increasingly criticizing his record. Tuesday’s debate in Las Vegas will be the first test of whether Cruz has staying power, like Trump, or will quickly fade like Carson and Fiorina.
Cruz, unlike Carson and Fiorina, is an experienced political figure. While the Texas senator regularly claims he is an outsider, in fact he has spent much of his adult life in politics, serving as an aide in the campaign and administration of George W. Bush before running for office in Texas himself.
Cruz won’t struggle to answer basic questions about policy, as Carson has. He is unlikely, as Fiorina did, to describe a Planned Parenthood video that does not exist in reality.
But the Texas senator has some potential vulnerabilities. Cruz has suggested he would eliminate a number of federal agencies, such as the Department of Education, but has not described exactly how their functions would be replaced. His tax proposal, like those of other Republican candidates, would result in a huge increase in the federal budget deficit.
And Cruz has flip-flopped on some issues, most notably his view of U.S. Supreme Court Chief Justice John Roberts. The Texas senator praised Roberts' appointment in 2005, but now is casting the chief justice as insufficiently conservative.
Cruz, like Rubio, has tried to take positions on issues that allow him to appeal to a number of different constituencies in the Republican Party at the same time. On foreign policy, Cruz at times expresses positions like those of the more hawkish wing of the Republican Party, such as his forceful calls for the U.S. to eradicate ISIS.
At the same time, like Kentucky Sen. Rand Paul, Cruz sometimes argues that the U.S. is too ready to intervene abroad. Cruz opposes the U.S. attempting to impose a no-fly zone in Syria, a policy favored by Rubio, Hillary Clinton and many foreign affairs experts.
With Cruz surging in polls, Paul could choose in this debate to criticize the Texas senator from the left on foreign policy, while Rubio does so from the right.
On immigration, Cruz has positioned himself to the left of Donald Trump, who wants to deport undocumented immigrants, but to the right of other Republican candidates.
Cruz has not proposed mass deportation and has not ruled out some kind of legalization process for undocumented immigrants. He does not have favor banning Muslims from entering the country, a Trump proposal that polls suggest the majority of Republicans favor.
Trump in particular could use the debate to illustrate that Cruz is insufficiently opposed to illegal immigration and Muslims coming to the United States.
And the other candidates are likely to cast Cruz as too conservative for many Republican voters. While many Republicans are deeply conservative, a more moderate bloc is influential, not only in states like New Hampshire but also even in areas in the South and West.
Candidates like Ohio Gov. John Kasich could remind GOP voters that Cruz is both a senator who works in Washington, the city many voters strongly dislike, but has at times been part of its dysfunction. Cruz was one of the Republicans who pushed for the government shutdown during 2013 in an unsuccessful effort to stop the implementation of the Affordable Care Act. The Texas senator has accomplished little in terms of getting legislation passed in his three years in Washington.
Cruz though may be uniquely well-prepared to handle a presidential debate with his opponents gunning at him. As an undergraduate at Princeton, he was one of the leading members of the debate team. He later served as Texas’ solicitor general, arguing cases in front of the U.S. Supreme Court. And in the debates in the 2016 process, Cruz has not only made no major mistakes but been very effective in using questions to bash the media, a smart tact in a Republican primary.