Most gripping GOP primary race in 40 years?

Built-in bias resides in every pundit — and in every journalist actually. Transparency is the best remedy, so keep in mind my three biases when you read my take on the race as it enters the most interesting stretch of internal GOP struggle since 1976’s epic battle between sitting President Gerald Ford and former California Gov. Ronald Reagan.

First, a long race and especially an “open convention” — one in which no would be nominee arrives at the GOP’s Rock-and-Roll Convention in Cleveland in July with enough votes to clinch the party’s nod — is good for the media business. (It is especially good for me as I move my radio show to the big bus of East Coast a.m. drive as Dr. William Bennett assumes senior status in our Salem Media Group family of programs and commentators.)

Second, I have a seat as a panelist on two more debate stages, when Salem teams with CNN on February 25 in Houston and March 10 in Miami, the key debates before the big two “Super Tuesdays” on March 1 and March 15. I have worked all year and through 153 interviews with all the candidates to be as fair as possible, asking tough questions of them all and trying over time to have them all address the same issues. Thus I lean towards relying on what they have actually said to me and not to others, and not just this year, but often over many years (as with this 2010 interview with Ohio Gov. John Kasich about his faith). I base my assessment this Presidents’ Day Weekend on what I know to be true, not reports of whispers and gossip among operatives, though many are friends and one even a former employee.

Third, I’m from Warren, Ohio, capital of the Western Reserve and thus original heart of northeastern Ohio (though some would say Ashtabula, where all four of my grandparents were from, or even Cleveland). I attended every Browns home game from 1965 to 1974 and have been a season ticket holder since their return in 1999. (The triumph of hope over experience.)

Thus like the vast majority of Buckeyes who still live in Ohio, I personally like and am very comfortable with Gov. John Kasich and excited for Cleveland that it is hosting what will turn out to be a historic event and a grand old time for the Grand Old Party. I am not endorsing Kasich or anyone, but I am endorsing the prospect of a Cleveland and an Ohio boom.

So those are my biases. Here are my observations.

Donald Trump and Sen. Ted Cruz are playing completely new and different games than the traditional campaigners. It’s not an “outside/inside” divide but a new air war on Trump’s side and a new ground game on Cruz’s. Both have the best in their respective businesses doing the day-to-day work.

Cruz was also assisted these past three weeks by the United States Supreme Court raising fundamental issues of the Constitution’s design: in the immigration executive order case where the Court demanded the parties brief the issue of whether the President was upholding his obligation to see to it that the “laws are faithfully executed,”and in issuing an unexpected and virtually unprecedented stay Tuesday of EPA’s wild power grab in the name of global warming.

Cruz’s depth of knowledge and deep understanding of Constitutional first principles that come from his nine arguments before the Nine (Superme Court justices) help him profoundly if the battleground is the Constitution, and his army is made up of the evangelicals and Tea Party activists who fear the structure is teetering under constant assaults from the left.

I discount — a lot — the much remarked-upon hostility of “GOPe” meaning the Republican establishment to Cruz. Sure, “GOPdc” doesn’t like him and may even “hate” him, but the vast GOPe of state legislators and county party chairs, of central committee loyalists and governors and small town Chambers of Commerce don’t “hate” Ted Cruz and don’t care if he broke some china and hurt some feelings when he got to town, or that he is ambitious. Many of them are ambitious, and almost all are ambitious for change.

The Speaker Boehner era birthed Cruz’s support. The former Speaker’s circle can fume and vent, but the new Speaker Paul Ryan is wisely tapping into the GOPe outside the beltway and combining its energy with that of the Tea Party, retired military, and religious liberty conservatives — which means detente or even joyful alliance with a nominee Cruz, not sabotage.

Former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush has been the most successful conservative governor of the past quarter century. If records and executive experience in government matter most, he wins. He has experience and both his brother and father faced election crises and overcame them. (41 was 17 points behind Mike Dukakis in 1988 and W lost New Hampshire to McCain and rallied to win South Carolina, the nomination and election and the famous overtime.) To be a Bush is to never be surprised and to never panic, but rather to focus and execute.

Sen. Marco Rubio has the most extraordinary rhetorical gifts of any GOP politician at least since Reagan and he may be the Gipper’s equal in the set-piece address. The debate wounded him. Badly. Far worse than I thought at the time, but the hours I have spent with him over the radio and in the studio may have immunized me to the exchange with Chris Christie. If all you have ever seen is a tale of Peyton Manning’s interception in Super Bowl 50, you would not understand his prowess behind center.

John Kasich has run and won something like 15 elections. He is the “happy warrior,” with idiosyncrasies that are genuine and usually endearing. He has a home-field advantage upcoming in the key electoral map state of Ohio and even in nearby Michigan, where except for one Saturday a year, the similarities are deep.

His home state of Pennsylvania and neighbors of Indiana Kentucky West Virginia share media markets with Buckeyes, and know the governor and will vote that knowledge in their primaries. Even Illinois and the upper Midwest of Minnesota and Wisconsin have some built in advantages for Kasich. He has a path, harder to see than the others, but a path.

Dr. Ben Carson is staying in and staying on message. It’s hard to see how he becomes the nominee but the party should welcome his continued presence and important messages of civility and service.

So Saturday night’s debate will shape the week that follows and the big vote in the South Carolina primary the following Saturday. But the only one potentially knocked out by a bad showing is Jeb, who is also potentially the biggest winner with an upset. Everyone else continues on, Rubio to a likely win in Nevada where his organization is deep and growing, Cruz to the “SEC primaries,” Kasich to his higher ground on March 8 in Michigan and March 15 in Ohio, Trump to everywhere because he leads every poll in every state.

Add it all together, and it spells “open convention.” What a great show for a great city by a Great Lake. And it freezes the Democratic Death Star without a target.

I love it when a plan comes together, even when this was never the plan.

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