Trump's debate dodge left Cruz in the line of fire
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Republican front-runner Donald TrumpDonald John TrumpKoch-backed group launches six-figure ad buy against Heitkamp Anti-abortion Dem wins primary fight Lipinski holds slim lead in tough Illinois primary fight MORE's move to ditch the final debate before the Iowa caucus was brilliant, bold and effective. And despite the media narrative, it wasn't personal; it was all business. It wasn't fear of moderator Megyn Kelly, and it wasn't the Fox News press release. The debate simply held no payoff for Trump. If he'd showed up, all he could have done was break even and stay on top. And to do that, he'd have to survive being at the center podium — the bull's-eye podium. Instead, he took himself off the target and let Sen. Ted CruzRafael (Ted) Edward CruzCruz says Cambridge Analytica assured him its practices were legal Dem battling Cruz in Texas: ‘I can understand how people think this is crazy’ Overnight Tech: Facebook faces crisis over Cambridge Analytica data | Lawmakers demand answers | What to watch for next | Day one of AT&T's merger trial | Self-driving Uber car kills pedestrian MORE be the 50-point red circle everyone aimed for. And he did it all without sacrificing media exposure. As I predicted a few days ago, Trump was the pre-debate and post-debate story.

Cruz summed up what being the bull's-eye might have meant for Trump when he said, "the last four questions have been 'Rand, please attack Ted.' 'Marco, please attack Ted.' 'Chris, please attack Ted.' 'Jeb, please attack Ted.' ... Gosh, if you guys ask one more mean question, I may have to leave the stage."

Cruz operated for months in what he thought was a detente with the front-runner, and it all ended last night with Trump using Cruz as a human shield.

Kill Claudius the first chance you get, don't listen to Lady Macbeth, don't smother your wife without hearing her side of the story, and don't appease Donald Trump. The 2016 GOP primary may not be William Shakespeare, but it will be a tragedy for Cruz, who may pull off a victory in Iowa but will lose his momentum a week later when New Hampshirites go to the polls.

When Cruz looks back on his strategy, he'll see that it was his appeasement of Donald Trump that ultimately proved to be his fatal flaw. It was an ironic decision, given that his own foreign policy would never allow such a dangerous insurgent to grow in power without being carpet-bombed.

In the pre-Trump election paradigm, one media-exposed misspeak/misstep spelled the end for a candidate: Mitt Romney's infamous 47 percent comment. Rick Perry's epic debate "oops." President George H.W. Bush checking his watch. Vice President Al Gore trying to intimidate George W. Bush. John McCain trying to get a debate cancelled.

When Trump said, "When Mexico sends its people, they're not sending their best. They're not sending you. They're not sending you. They're sending people that have lots of problems, and they're bringing those problems with us. They're bringing drugs. They're bringing crime. They're rapists. And some, I assume, are good people," the media and the other candidates pounced on him — except Ted Cruz. The Washington Post's Philip Bump wrote:

For the most part, the response from 2016 Republicans to Donald Trump’s comments about Mexican illegal immigrants has been uniform: tempered outrage. ... But there's a notable exception: Ted Cruz. Shortly after the issue flared up last week, Cruz said that Trump "speaks the truth" and didn't need to apologize. He kept defending Trump over the weekend, saying Friday on Fox News that he thinks Trump is "terrific" and, on "Meet the Press," that he "salute[s] Donald Trump for focusing on the need to address illegal immigration.

When Trump said, "I like the people who weren't captured," referring to John McCain's experience as a prisoner of war, that should have been it for him. The media (including me) did their thing and ripped him to pieces over it. The other candidates censured him on Twitter and over the airwaves.

As noted in CNN by Ashley Killough:

But [Cruz] declined to speak ill of his presidential rival, with whom he met earlier this week in New York after becoming the most notable 2016 hopeful to side with Trump over his controversial remarks on immigration. Instead, Cruz on Saturday blamed the media for trying to pit Republicans against each other.

The GOP base has long been divided between Trump and Cruz. So, it made since to Cruz to ride along at a safe distance in Trump's wake until the Trumptanic hit an iceberg and sank. Then, it would be simple to throw life vests to the water-treading Trump supporters.

But Trump never crashed and Cruz never realized the election paradox his appeasement created: Cruz was the only one who had enough pull with the base to sink Trump, but he never took a stand against Trump that forced the conservative media to take sides until it was too late. And when Trump finally took a swing at Cruz, it was a Rocky-Apollo-Clubber-Drago-rolled-into-one knockout punch.

In the GOP race, Trump is now the candidate who is too big to fail. Meanwhile, many who used to tweet about the sweetness of a Trump/Cruz ticket — the voters Cruz expected to inherit after the fall of the house of Trump — now tweet that Cruz isn't a natural-born citizen.

For Ted Cruz, the rest is silence.

Zipperer is assistant professor of political science at Georgia Military College.