That was the verdict of Frank Luntz's Iowa focus group:
For my evaporating money, it was entirely appropriate that Cruz and Rubio got the lion's share of the mic time as if they were the top two candidates in Iowa, because they ARE the top two candidates in Iowa - or top two REPUBLICAN candidates, anyway.
Both took feeble and futile fire from their inferiors - Cruz from the rodential Rand Paul, Rubio from the hapless Jeb Bush - without any marks being left. They didn't tangle with each other all that much, other than when Cruz made a lame joke about walking off the stage if the Fox moderators asked "mean questions," which fed Rubio for the easy dunk retort of vowing that he'd take any question they had to dish out.
The other day I advised Senator Cruz to ignore Trump and make his closing argument for why Iowa 'Pubbies should cast their ballots for him. Cruz ignored that advice last night, making lame jokes like the aforementioned, trying to relive his moment of glory in the infamous CNBC-moderated debate by trying to pick fights with Wallace, Baer, and Kelly - an odd impulse given that he couldn't have drawn a friendlier moderator panel than one from Fox News - and got humiliatingly shut down in short order (which Trump will doubtless gleefully be pointing out over the weekend). Overall it came off as Cruz trying not so much to mock Trump as to BE Trump, begging the question of why he would ever want to do, or be, that.
Rubio gave a much better alpha-male performance by being aggressive, sticking to his strongest issue topics (national security), slapping down any and all challenges from his on-stage rivals, and dishing out red meat like Ruth's Criss Steakhouse:
My pick for this Monday? Well, we know that approximately a third of Trumplicans are past non-voters whose reliability to show up, not at a polling place but in some stranger's living room to argue and debate and hash things out into the wee hours of the morning is not great. So unless and until Trump proves otherwise, I'm calling his poll numbers overhyped exaggeration, and I'm calling Iowa for Ted Cruz:
Cruz 29%, Trump 21%, Rubio 20%.
And remember, as Trump will be telling us for the next few weeks, it'll all be Megyn Kelly's fault.
UPDATE: Here's an alternative theory of why Cruz is focusing his final attack ads on Rubio: Maybe the two of them really are the top two candidates in Iowa, and Trump is destined to finish third. Funny how nobody is considering that possibility. Other than yours truly, of course.
UPDATE: Further reason to believe my take:
In essence, Trump is not just accusing Ted Cruz of not being constitutionally eligible for the presidency; he's accusing him of being an illegal alien AND an "anchor baby" in two countries. The former is arguable; the latter is reckless, lunatic gibberish that, coming from anybody else, would be seen as flailing desperation. Is his campaign's internal polling showing that his performance Monday night won't be all that YUGE?
But even if Trump does win Iowa, this is still an appallingly stupid line of attack:
If Trump is headed for a two-man race with Rubio then he should be thinking already about how to lure Cruz’s voters, some of whom are open to Trump because he’s a populist but some of whom are open to Rubio because he’s more conservative than Trump is. Trump should want to do everything he can to tear down Cruz at this point by attacking his record without doing something that angers persuadable Cruz fans so much that they opt for Rubio over Trump out of spite if forced to choose....
Accusing Cruz of being an “anchor baby” in Canada and of possibly not even being a U.S. citizen is, I think, the sort of attack that’ll alienate Cruz voters more than garden-variety stuff like “Cruz doesn’t play well with others.” It’s dirty pool in a way that attacks on his record in the Senate aren’t.
Of course, you could make the "genius" argument about Trump skipping last night's debate in that he had Megyn Kelly effectively doing his job for him in kneecapping Cruz AND Rubio on illegal immigration. But that gets back to why he's doubling down on the biggest low blow he's thrown at Cruz when the Texas senator is already purportedly wounded. Why not attack that on that issue instead of permanently cutting himself off from a large pool of voters he could use in a two-man post-Iowa race? My best guess is that Trump's ego has written off Rubio as a non-factor, with Cruz as the last obstacle left between him and the nomination. But doesn't pride still goeth before a fall?