Debate Analysis: This is fast becoming a three-way race between Trump, Cruz & Rubio. Here’s why. (Fascinating to see “apocalyptic” Islam mentioned repeatedly during the debate.)

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(Ft. Myers, Florida) — Who is ready to lead us in 2017 and beyond?

That’s the central question, and last night I watched the presidential debates very carefully, trying to determine which of the candidates truly understand the nature and magnitude of the threats we face and who is best prepared to handle such threats.

Last November, I wrote that for me the field had narrowed to a “Final Four” — the two young Cuban conservatives (Cruz and Rubio), and the two previous Iowa caucus winners (Huckabee and Santorum). Thus, last night I watched these four most closely.

Here are my observations:

  • First, the debates were so much better — more spirited, more engaging, more substantive and policy-focused — without the presence of Mr. Trump.
  • Neither front-runner in the race — Mr. Trump and Secretary Clinton — will protect unborn children, promote and defend Biblical marriage, appoint conservative jurists to the Supreme Court, or protect us from Radical Islam and Apocalyptic Islam. Clinton is openly opposed to such objectives. Mr. Trump says he’s a recent convert to conservatism, but there’s little if any evidence to substantiate the change.
  • Mrs. Clinton fully supports President Obama’s failed policies towards Iran and ISIS.
  • Mr. Trump says that he will not rip up the Iran deal.
  • Now, on to the Final Four….
  • In the first debate, Santorum continued to show that he has a strong grasp of the threats posed by Iran and ISIS and has two decades of experience preparing him to neutralize those threats. His answers on these matters were clear, convincing and I have no doubt he would make an excellent Commander-in-Chief were the country to give him the responsibility.
  • Huckabee was solid on life, marriage, religious freedom and the importance of reforming the tax code to help Blue Collar Americans and create millions of new jobs, as was Santorum. Huckabee made the case for a national sales tax. Santorum made the case for his 20% flat tax.
  • At one point, one of the Fox anchors tried to imply that Santorum’s pro-life credentials were in question because he didn’t attend the March For Life in Washington. That was ridiculous, and Carly Fiorina was classy in her defense of Santorum’s unimpeachable pro-life record. Good for her.
  • I am deeply grateful for Santorum and Huckabee for their faithfulness to the cause. They have always been there for Evangelicals and Catholics to fight for the things that matter most. They both love Israel deeply. They aren’t afraid to speak out against Islamic extremism and other threats at home and abroad. They have both been unfairly treated by the media, and relegated to the back of the pack. But they acquitted themselves well at the debate, as they always do.
  • That said, I was disappointed that both men chose to go to Mr. Trump’s event.
  • Mr. Trump is a lifelong liberal. He has no national security or foreign policy experience. He promotes all kinds of flawed and crazy ideas. He would be dangerous for the country if he was elected. No one should be standing with him. No one should be supporting him, or legitimizing him, especially two former caucus winners.
  • Sen. Cruz put in a solid performance at the second debate. He made an aggressive case for the flat tax and economic growth. He was clear in his opposition to Radical Islam and argued that as Commander-in-Chief he would be strong in dealing with the ISIS and Iran threats. He argued that the U.S. military is being hollowed out by President Obama and must be rebuilt, which is all too true. However, he was challenged by several who say Cruz has repeatedly against the U.S. defense budgets. Unfortunately, Cruz didn’t give a clear answer as to why he has cast such votes.
  • Overall, Cruz was well prepared on the issues and didn’t make any major mistakes.
  • However, given that Cruz is such a highly accomplished debater, he did not dominate or deliver the knock out punch I expected. Indeed, overall he seemed a bit quieter and less commanding than he has in previous debates.
  • Rubio, by comparison, had an exceptional night. He demonstrated a seriousness on all the issues across the board, including life and faith and religious liberty.
  • Rubio was particularly impressive when it came to the issues of Iran and ISIS. Repeatedly, in fact, Rubio warned that Iran and ISIS are not typical threats but are driven by “Apocalyptic Islam” and thus more dangerous than most people realize.
  • “I believe only with a strong America will we defeat this radical group, this apocalyptic group called ISIS,” Rubio said early in the debate.
  • “ISIS is the most dangerous jihadist group in the history of mankind,” Rubio said later. “ISIS is now found in affiliates in over a dozen countries. ISIS is a group that burns people alive in cages; that sells off little girls as brides. ISIS is a group that wants to trigger an apocalyptic showdown in the city of Dabiq…in Syria. They want to trigger an apocalyptic Armageddon showdown.”
  • Still later in the debate, Rubio said, “let me first describe Iran because they’re not just a normal nation state. And we have no quarrel with the Iranian people. But the Iranian leader, their supreme leader is a radical Shia cleric who has an apocalyptic vision of the future.”
  • He’s absolutely right. I was impressed by Rubio’s command of these issues and his willingness to use describe this brand of Islam as “apocalyptic” to help the American people more precisely understand the nature of the threats we face.
  • So, where does that leave us?
  • Iowans vote in the caucuses on Monday night. The stakes are high and the drama is mounting. At this point, polls indicate that Mr. Trump is well out in front, and that Sen. Cruz has slipped out of the lead and is currently in second place. The polls also show Sen. Rubio is a distant third, though his numbers have been slowly inching up in recent months.
  • Trump and Cruz claim we now have a two-man race. Perhaps, but I’m not convinced that’s accurate. Not yet. I suspect we could see some dramatic surprises in the days and weeks ahead. Indeed, I have a sense that Rubio could surge in the final days.
  • Is it possible that Santorum or Huckabee will gain last minute traction? Yes, it’s possible one or the other will outperform the polls, and if that happens, that would be fascinating and highly unexpected given that the media has written them off.
  • If neither Huckabee nor Santorum surges, then neither likely has a path forward to the nomination and would most likely have to drop out soon.
  • If Trump wins Iowa, he could very well win New Hampshire. If he wins both, he becomes almost an unstoppable train and could theoretically wrap up the nomination very quickly.
  • If Cruz wins in Iowa, this would be a real blow to Trump who is convinced the entire country loves him and talks about his dominant position in the polls all the time. Cruz might then surge to a second place finish in New Hampshire and would be well positioned to win South Carolina. Cruz winning two of the first three states would give him a real head of steam going into the SEC primaries, though the establishment will try to do everything to crush him.
  • The X Factor is Rubio. If the Florida Senator continues to click upward in Iowa — and especially if he surges in these final days and hours going into the caucuses — he could surprise us.
  • This could rapidly become a three-man race: Trump (the liberal masquerading as a conservative) vs. Cruz vs. Rubio. Now that would be a fascinating race. Both Cruz and Rubio have flaws. But they also have real strengths and it would be healthy for two young, brilliant, conservative, Hispanic, Evangelical leaders compete to win the confidence of their party. It would be fascinating to see one of them then compete against Hillary Clinton or Bernie Sanders to lead the country after Mr. Obama’s second term is complete.
  • How will all this play out? I have no idea. But I believe every Evangelical Christian across the country and around the world should be praying faithfully for the Lord to raise up the leader who can turn this country around and get us heading in the right direction (i.e., a “Josiah.”) We need to pray, but we also need to act. We need to mobilize our family and friends to turn out to vote. If Christians stay home and cede the battlefield, then those who don’t share our values are going to win, and we will have no one to blame but ourselves.

Here are key excerpts from the Thursday’s debate on the issue of Radical and Apocalyptic Islam:

SEN. MARCO RUBIO: I want to be frank about what I stand for. I believe the world is a safer and a better place when America is the strongest power in the world. And I believe only with a strong America will we defeat this radical group, this apocalyptic group called ISIS. That’s why when I’m president we are going to rebuild our intelligence capabilities. And they’re going to tell us where the terrorists are. And a rebuilt U.S. military is going to destroy these terrorists. And if we capture any of these ISIS killers alive, they are going to Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, and we’re going to find out everything they know, because when I’m president, unlike Barack Obama, we will keep this country safe….

————

FOX NEWS ANCHOR CHRIS WALLACE: Gentlemen, we’re now going to start to drill down into specific issues that are on voters’ minds. I’m going to start with one of the biggest ones, which is foreign terror. According to Google, ISIS was by far the most searched foreign policy topic over the last year. Senator Cruz, you talk tough about fighting terrorism. You talk about carpet bombing into oblivion. You talk about seeing if the sand will glow at night. But critics say that your record does not match up to that. You opposed giving President Obama authority to enforce his red line in Syria. Three years in a row now, you have voted against the Defense Authorization Act. How do you square your rhetoric with your record, sir?

SEN. TED CRUZ: Well, Chris, I will apologize to nobody for the vigorousness with which I will fight terrorism, go after ISIS, hunt them down wherever they are, and utterly and completely destroy ISIS. (APPLAUSE) You know, you claim it is tough talk to discuss carpet bombing. It is not tough talk. It is a different, fundamental military strategy than what we’ve seen from Barack Obama. Barack Obama right now, number one, over seven years, has dramatically degraded our military. You know, just two weeks ago was the 25th anniversary of the first Persian Gulf war. When that war began, we had 8,000 planes. Today, we have about 4,000. When that war began, we had 529 ships. Today, we have 272.

You want to know what carpet bombing is? It’s what we did in the first Persian Gulf war; 1,100 air attacks a day, saturation bombing that utterly destroyed the enemy. Right now, Barack Obama is launching between 15 and 30 air attacks a day. He’s not arming the Kurds. We need to define the enemy. We need to rebuild the military to defeat the enemy. And we need to be focused and lift the rules of engagement so we’re not sending our fighting men and women into combat with their arms tied behind their backs. (APPLAUSE)

WALLACE: Senator Rubio, does Senator Cruz’s record match his rhetoric?

RUBIO: Well, again, I mean, obviously, as already has been pointed out, the only budget that Ted has ever voted for is a budget that Rand Paul sponsored that brags about cutting defense spending. And I think that’s a bad idea for the following reason.

ISIS is the most dangerous jihadist group in the history of mankind. ISIS is now found in affiliates in over a dozen countries. ISIS is a group that burns people alive in cages; that sells off little girls as brides. ISIS is a group that wants to trigger an apocalyptic showdown in the city of Dabiq — not the city of Dubuque; I mis-said — mis-said that wrong once — the city of Dabiq in Syria. They want to trigger an apocalyptic Armageddon showdown.

This group needs to be confronted and defeated. They are not going to go away on their own. They’re not going to turn into stockbrokers overnight or open up a chain of car washes. They need to be defeated militarily, and that will take overwhelming U.S. force.

Today, we are on pace to have the smallest Army since the end of World War II, the smallest Navy in 100 years, the smallest Air Force in our history. You cannot destroy ISIS with a military that’s being diminished. When I’m president, we are rebuilding the U.S. military because the world is a safer and a better place when America is the strongest military in the world.

WALLACE: Senator Cruz, you’ve got 30 seconds. You were mentioned.

CRUZ: Chris, in 1981, when Ronald Reagan came to the Oval Office, he encountered a military that had been debilitated just as the current military has, just like Jimmy Carter weakened our readiness, undermined our ability to defend this country, so too has Barack Obama. Just as morale in the military has plummeted in the last seven, so it had then.

What Reagan did is he began with tax reform and regulatory reform, unleashing the engine of the American free enterprise system. It brought booming economic growth and that growth fueled rebuilding the military. I intend to do the exact same thing to defeat radical Islamic terrorism and to devote the resources from the booming economy to rebuilding our Navy, rebuilding our Air Force, rebuilding our Army and ensuring we have the capacity to keep this country safe.

———–

FOX NEWS ANCHOR BRET BAIER: Gentlemen, you’ve all said that the Iran nuclear deal is a bad one. Senator Rubio, you were among the candidates who’ve said you would tear it up on day one. But as you know, Iran has already received tens of millions of dollars — tens of billions of dollars in this deal and has quickly reestablished ties economically with Europe. The major concessions, in other words, are up front in this deal. So should you win by the time you take office, the remaining parts of the deal would be the constraints on Iran. So why blow up those constraints on day one, letting Iran off the hook?

RUBIO: Well, let me first describe Iran because they’re not just a normal nation state. And we have no quarrel with the Iranian people. But the Iranian leader, their supreme leader is a radical Shia cleric who has an apocalyptic vision of the future. He views himself not simply as the leader of Iran, but as the leader of all Muslims — all Shia Muslims on the planet. And they have a desire not simply to conquer the Middle East and to become the dominant power in that region, but ultimately to be able to hold America hostage.

That is why they’re building an — right now, developing long- range missiles capable of reaching the United States, and that is why there’s going — they’re going to use those $100 billion to expand their conventional capabilities and to one day buy or build a nuclear weapon.

We will — when I am president of the United States, on my first day in office, we are canceling the deal with Iran, and nations will have to make a choice. They can do business with Iran, or they can do business with America, and I am very confident they’re going to choose America before they choose the Iranian economy.

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