As much as he excites hard-right conservatives, Sen. Ted Cruz remains a problematic potential presidential nominee for many voters — including Republicans who want to win the White House in November. But even some of Cruz's critics have reason to celebrate the Texas senator's first-place finish in the Iowa caucuses. By denying Donald Trump a victory — by turning him into what he most despises, a loser — Cruz may have helped not only his party but also the country dodge a lethal bullet.
Iowa may be just the first of many states to stage a pre-convention contest, but a victory for the boorish and bigoted real-estate mogul would have been a seismic — and embarrassing — event. In some respects, Cruz is just as extreme as Trump, and may even be more vulnerable in November's general election. And far from campaigning against partisan paralysis in Washington, Cruz has championed it. But by besting Trump, he has slowed what some in the party feared was a runaway train, creating space not only for himself but also for other, less divisive candidates, notably Sen. Marco Rubio.
The other headline from Iowa was the strong showing of the Florida senator, who despite his youth is emerging as the preferred candidate of what is loosely called the Republican establishment. Sooner or later, other mainstream candidates in the crowded Republican field will vacate it, leaving the party with a choice not between moderate and conservative options but between varieties of conservatism. Rubio has outlined a more realistic set of policies than Cruz, yet he still must define himself convincingly as a more electable alternative without alienating the base of the party.
On the Democratic side, Monday's results were less surprising: an excruciatingly close contest between Hillary Clinton and Sen. Bernie Sanders that confirmed that the self-described democratic socialist from Vermont is no symbolic protest candidate. With the withdrawal of former Maryland Gov. Martin O'Malley, the stage is set for a sustained two-candidate race in which Clinton may remain the front-runner all the way to the convention, but won't be able to ignore Sanders or his radical critique of her platform of "realism" and incrementalism.
It's fashionable to lament the importance that is attached to the Iowa caucuses simply because they come first on the election-year schedule. That criticism is fair, but someone has to go first and Iowans of both parties deserve credit for their energy and their enthusiasm. In making their choices, they have winnowed the fields without foreclosing further developments and additional debate. And they turned out in record numbers, setting an example the rest of the country should follow.
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