NORTH CHARLESTON, SOUTH CAROLINA – With two weeks to go until the first contest of the 2016 presidential race, Republicans who fear their party has been hijacked by the likes of Donald Trump and Ted Cruz found little to comfort them in the latest debate.
Both candidates — one a billionaire developer with no political experience and the other a senator from Texas with a reputation for clashing with his colleagues in Washington — stood at center stage Thursday night and, for the most part, dominated the proceedings.
More mainstream hopefuls, such as former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush, New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, Ohio Gov. John Kasich and Florida Sen. Marco Rubio, were left nipping at their heels and squabbling among themselves.
With characteristic bravado, Trump dubbed himself the winner on Friday. Speaking to 250 people at Living History Farms in Iowa, he called the debate “interesting” and said “even the pundits last night were treating me nicely.” Trump told MSNBC that overnight polls had showed him winning the debate, saying Cruz was “very strident” and made “inappropriate” comments.
“I don’t know that he’s a nice guy,” Trump said on MSNBC’s “Morning Joe” program. “I think he hurt himself last night.”
Trump, 69, and Cruz, 45, whom opinion polls have locked in a tight struggle to win the Feb. 1 Iowa caucuses, clashed at several points, befitting their status as leading men. That left little room for rivals hurriedly trying to close the gap before voting begins to choose the party’s nominee for November’s general election.
Some Republicans worried that the time remaining to stop Trump or Cruz from seizing the inside track on the nomination was evaporating and that the establishment candidates were doing little to slow either man’s momentum.
“They are digging themselves a bit of a hole,” said Fergus Cullen, the former chairman of the New Hampshire Republican Party. “It’s entirely possible the final two candidates will be Trump and Cruz, and people like me will be despondent.”
Thomas Donohue, the CEO of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, which is often viewed as the country’s most powerful mainstream business lobby group, fretted in a speech in Washington on Thursday that the rhetoric in the Republican primary campaign was “damn serious and sometimes a little scary.”
Both Trump and Cruz have called for cracking down on legal and illegal immigration. Trump has also advocated a temporary ban on Muslims entering the country after the Dec. 2 shootings in San Bernardino, California, which killed 14 people and were inspired by Islamist militancy.
“There are voices, sometimes very loud voices,” Donohue said, “who talk about walling off America from talent and trade and who are attacking whole groups of people based not on their conduct but on their ethnicity or religion. This is morally wrong and politically stupid.”
New Hampshire will hold its primary about a week after Iowa’s caucuses and perhaps offers the best chance for a more moderate option to surface as a prime challenger. Iowa Republicans historically tend to favor more conservative candidates.
But in New Hampshire right now, “the mainstream Republicans are as splintered and scattered as ever,” Cullen said, leaving open the possibility that Trump could win that state as well.
Indeed, there seemed to be some acknowledgement during the debate that only one serious contender might emerge from the rest of the field. That had Christie and Rubio, both of whom hope to win New Hampshire, repeatedly locking horns.
“They know what lane they’re in and who they’re fighting,” said Chip Felkel, a Republican strategist in South Carolina, which also will hold a primary next month. “It’s Trump and Cruz, and the other four jockeying for some momentum.”
Trump and Cruz dominated social media mentions in the debate. According to Google’s analytics, which tracked audience responses to the debate, Trump and Cruz were the winners.
“More and more, this is coming down to a two-man race. The polling, the support — it is more and more looking like it is Donald Trump and me,” Cruz said in an interview on the Fox Business Network after the debate.
“We have the resources to go the distance. And one of the things we’re seeing, more and more people are coming behind us saying, ‘Listen, you guys are the only campaign that can beat Donald Trump,'” he added.
Even before the debate, there were other signs of establishment concern about Trump and Cruz, who are both vying for support from the tea party movement, which advocates for smaller government and lower taxes.
Peter Wehner, a Republican official who worked in the last three Republican presidential administrations, wrote a scathing Op-Ed in the New York Times slamming Trump on Thursday.
In a shift, most of the field left Trump alone during the debate and at times praised him, perhaps recognizing that he seems to have better tapped into the restless mood among Republican voters.
Even Trump’s statements about prohibiting Muslim immigration drew a strong rebuke only from Bush, with other candidates such as Cruz and Rubio sounding notes of sympathy with Trump’s position.
New Hampshire’s Cullen was still holding out hope that Rubio, or someone else, might still find time to take on his party’s more extreme elements. But, he lamented, “the odds are dropping.”