SCOTT SIMON, HOST:
A big political weekend in presidential politics, and it began Thursday night with the sixth Republican debate. On Sunday, it will be the three Democrats who are running for president. Yes, there are three. NPR's senior Washington editor and correspondent Ron Elving joins us. Ron, thanks for being with us.
RON ELVING, BYLINE: Good to be with you, Scott.
SIMON: So who came out of that debate looking strong as we look ahead to Iowa?
ELVING: Two people in particular, Trump and Cruz, Donald Trump and Ted Cruz. Trump is no longer the dominating personality that he was, but he's still the name leading in national polls and in most of the early states. Cruz, though, is the central figure in this particular debate if only because he was the object of most of the attacks from the other candidates. And he is masterful at slipping the punch, changing the subject, turning the criticism back onto others.
SIMON: What about all the time he had to spend, though, going back and forth about whether he's even eligible to run for president?
ELVING: Certainly not helpful. It's a big distraction, a speed bump, if you will, for his campaign. But his footwork, even on this, is remarkable, also on that story in The New York Times about his taking loans from a couple of big Wall Street banks to finance his Senate campaign and then portraying it somewhat differently in popular press. He's pretty good at making all that sort of seem not that important, and it doesn't seem to be bothering his followers.
SIMON: However, did Ted Cruz, an acclaimed debater, open the door for Donald Trump to have his best moment when Senator Cruz seemed to take a swipe at New York City?
ELVING: The moderators asked about this idea of New York values, which Ted Cruz has been using to identify himself with people in places like Iowa and New Hampshire where New York City may not be that popular. And he refined that to say not a lot of conservatives come out of Manhattan in this particular debate. But as you say, Donald Trump then came to the defense of New York. It was an uncharacteristic moment for Trump. It was clearly not planned or rehearsed. You could see his face show the thoughts coming into his mind. And he got almost emotional talking about how New Yorkers responded after 9/11, how they suffered, the smell of death in the air. And it was moving, and that's not what we always expect from Donald Trump and quite sincere.
SIMON: Yeah, I also thought all Senator Cruz could do was just kind of nod his head.
ELVING: A rare moment of silence from Ted Cruz.
SIMON: Who else do you think scored well?
ELVING: Marco Rubio always does well in these debates. It's as though this is really the focal point of his campaign. He always has prepared things to say that he gets off very spontaneously, a flurry of attacks on Ted Cruz, a flurry of attacks on Chris Christie, who did the best he could to cope with those and was certainly also a strong figure on the debate stage. Jeb Bush, John Kasich, Ben Carson, you know, they were there but they're far behind and they're fading fast.
SIMON: It seems like conservatives are on the rise in the Republican Party from one end to the other.
ELVING: You know, Scott, this week, a watershed poll in The Wall Street Journal with NBC News, it shows that if you narrow the field of Republican candidates to just the top few, Trump and Cruz together have 70 percent of the vote. So look, when the primaries are this dominated by the kind of voters we saw in the midterms of 2010 and 2014, you're going to get a conservative nominee. And we'll be looking for a vice presidential running mate who would balance the ticket a little bit to the left. You know, if you have to go all the way back to Ronald Reagan in 1980 to find that situation, usually the Republicans are looking for someone who would please or at least appease their right wing when it comes to a running mate. But this year, it's going to be going back the other way. The shoe is on the other foot.
SIMON: In your estimation, is the birthplace issue serious?
ELVING: These are muddy waters. It's just not like the Obama birther issue. That was a question of biography. Was he born in Hawaii or not? Get the birth certificate out there, the whole business kind of came to a halt. This is different because we're talking about different legal interpretations of what the Constitution meant by natural born citizen. So the lawsuits are already beginning to be filed.
SIMON: Yeah, and is there a new level of intensity on the Democratic side?
ELVING: There is indeed. Bernie Sanders is close in Iowa and he's leading in New Hampshire. Not so much because his numbers have come way up but because Hillary Clinton's numbers have come down. It's much like eight years ago when she was far ahead, but then Barack Obama crept up behind her and overtook her. This time, her numbers have actually come down even more precipitously in this last month before we get close to Iowa and New Hampshire.
SIMON: NPR's Ron Elving, thanks so much.
ELVING: Thank you, Scott.
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