No one during Tuesday night's Republican debate on Fox Business was talking sense, so really the contest came down to who best could showcase his skills as a glib liar. Marco Rubio keeps getting slicker at each debate, better at spinning nonsense with such an air of feigned confidence that you might actually think he knows what he's talking about if you aren't actually listening to the content of his words.
But the debate was also a reminder that Ted Cruz is lurking in the background, honing his own ability to speak utter nonsense with complete authority, waiting for the right moment to strike. And while the common wisdom in political circles is that Jeb Bush's slow flameout leaves a clear path for Rubio to take the nomination, last night's debate performance should be a reminder not to count Cruz out just yet.
In most aspects, Rubio and Cruz are basically equal. Both men excel at saying preposterous things with just enough conviction that you might think they are competent, if you don't know anything about the topic at hand. Both men are shameless about throwing red meat to the voters, as evidenced by the way they both expertly stoked conservative voter fears that Islamic terrorists will be here any minute to behead us all unless we dump even more money into our already oversized military. Both of them seem deeply attuned to the apparently widespread hatred the base has for the concept of philosophy.
Right now, it seems Rubio has the clearer shot at the nomination, as the only serious (depending on how you see Donald Trump) candidate to break the 10 percent barrier in polling of potential Republican voters. But Cruz is nipping on his heels, edging ever closer to that magical double digit polling. Things could change very rapidly in the next two months as the massive vulnerabilities of both the Carson and Trump campaign have a very serious chance of weighing down Republican voters. Should either man bow out---or run into serious trouble---then either man has an real opportunity to surge to the front.
It might all come down not to Trump, but to Ben Carson. Right now Carson, whose campaign is centered around theocratic yearnings, is cleaning up with evangelical voters. Since Carson shows every sign of running what is more a brand-building exercise than a legitimate presidential campaign, odds are high he is going to peace out early, maybe even before the voting starts, if the press digs up any more embarrassing stories on him.
If and when he does, there is a significant chance that those voters decamp not to Rubio, but to Cruz. While Rubio has won over many evangelical leaders, he's going to feel like a disappointing replacement for Carson, who expertly pushes fundamentalist buttons, both playing up their narrative of victimization at the hands of "secular progressives" and appealing to the narcissistic need to put their religion at the center of every discussion, from who built the pyramids to the best way to fight drug addiction to tax policy. Rubio is a glib frat boy who has all the correct opinions but doesn't really come across someone who is as deeply invested in the church as the evangelical base, bouncing around from church to church. More to the point, he doesn't really speak Jesus and can't slide evangelical dog whistles into everything he says like Carson can.
Cruz is a different story. There is no question that Cruz is a legitimate Bible-thumper, that he comes from the world of fundamentalist Christianity and is completely at ease speaking Jesus. Cruz announced his presidential big at Jerry Falwell's Liberty University and he never forgets to inject faith chatter (he was the only candidate to work the word "Bible" into the debate) into his talking points when he's speaking in public. His father, of course, is even a minister. His repulsion at the idea of human sexuality seems sincerely felt. Few things about Cruz are sincere or honest, but you do get the feeling that he really does believe all this religion stuff.
Rubio, on the other hand, is always trying to convince people he actually sits around listening to hip-hop records, which are known for having many words and concepts that are absolutely forbidden in conservative Christian circles. That's got to bring up some questions, amongst white evangelicals, about divided loyalties.
As Jamelle Bouie notes at Slate, Cruz also has a remarkably strong ground game and he has done a lot more hustling for evangelical votes than Rubio, going even to fringe events like the National Religious Liberties Conference, where the dangers of letting your girls listen to "Let It Go" were discussed. Cruz isn't afraid to embrace the bone-deep dorkiness of evangelical culture, which will make him feel more like one of theirs. Cruz's political style, of making bold gestures and demanding impossible things, that makes him wildly unpopular within his own party will also appeal to the conservative Christian myths about themselves as courageous truth-sayers pushing back against a world that hates them.
Of the two, Rubio would be the better candidate in the general election. His policy ideas don't make any more sense that Cruz's, but he buries them under a pile of garbage language that creates an impression of complexity and intelligence. Cruz, on the other hand, says things like he's going to abolish the IRS: Easy to understand and therefore easy to see as complete nonsense. Rubio's claim that regulation made the banks bigger is just as dumb, but the idiocy was buried beneath a layer of complex patter that would allow someone who is only half-listening to think he has a point. Against Hillary Clinton, Rubio could easily convince people who don't understand the issues that he's holding his own in debate. Cruz, on the other hand, runs a higher chance of coming across as a crazy person.
Still, Cruz has a chance, particularly of winning the nomination. His debate performances are well-rounded, including enough Bible-thumping to win over the evangelicals but hitting enough other Republican talking points to appeal to less religious conservatives. He seems more adult and less worried about people liking him. The fact that he's chilling out, getting his points in but not seeming to try to hard to get attention shows he's a smart campaigner---he knows if he makes his move too soon, he runs the chance of being seen as a vanity candidate who burns bright but burns out fast. But once Carson's star starts to fade, expect Cruz to make his move.