These were my impressions:
Cruz doesn’t serve himself well when he tries to talk around questions. He did it a couple of times last night at the beginning. I’m sure that Cruz wants to get his points in without letting the questioner completely set the agenda, but since Cruz always seems a little lawyerly to begin with, it makes him seem particularly evasive. He’d be better off directly answering at the outset (“Anderson, this is what I meant by patrolling Muslim neighborhoods…”), then getting his other points in.
All that said, I thought Cruz had the most personally compelling ten minutes of his campaign when he talked about his mom and his half-sister in response to questions about what he’d do for women and about drugs. These are the kind of stories that any other politician would ensure that every Republican voter in the country could recite by heart (e.g., Marco Rubio and his father working as a bartender). Cruz is such a substance guy I don’t think making points by personal anecdotes comes naturally to him, but he should do more of it — it is humanizing and powerful.
As for Trump, last night showed why he is doing so well in this campaign. He was completely ridiculous on the Michelle Fields incident, saying that her pen might have been a threat to him, but people were laughing along, and more with him than at him, I think. The way he talks is just highly entertaining. He obviously was at sea on the question of what the role of the federal government is, but still got his emphasis on national security through. On substance in general he was his usual complete mess, but he always circles back to his central themes. The fact is that in his own way, he looks presidential and has a command about him, and those are important qualities. One thing that has been made clear by the Fields incident is that when someone like Trump lies repeatedly and with complete confidence, it is very hard for anyone to dent him.
The most telling moment of the night was when Trump said he no longer honors the pledge to support the nominee if it’s not him and that he doesn’t care whether he gets Cruz’s support or not. Remember when Trump was supposed to be switching to a more unifying mode? That obviously never happened, in fact the opposite. Trump has ripped the party apart, and here he was saying, in effect, he doesn’t care. For their part, Cruz and Kasich danced around the pledge, with Cruz once again suggesting that it is off as far as he’s concerned, without saying it explicitly. I understand their hesitance to say outright they won’t support the nominee. It would be a momentous thing (and Kasich has to be thinking about potentially being Trump’s VP pick). But Trump used that hesitance against Cruz, saying that it is a sign of weakness and that he’s just another politician. So Trump is daring Cruz to go all the way. This is yet another sign of a party on the verge of a breakdown.
Trump doesn’t always, or even often, think strategically, especially in his public pronouncements. He lets it rip and trusts that the people will rally to him, as they’ve done — or rather, as a minority of the Republican Party has done — for the past nine months. He thought it’d be funny to needle Ted Cruz by retweeting something that insulted his wife’s looks so he did it. Simple as that. I don’t think the thought process in trashing the pledge last night was any more complicated. Cruz had hinted that he wouldn’t support Trump as nominee and Trump’s ego couldn’t bear the thought of Cruz “resigning” before Trump had a chance to “fire” him, so he fired him — even though, strategically, that’s pure insanity. He’d rather see 20 percent of the party stay home in November than go groveling to “Lyin’ Ted” for his support; alphas don’t ask, they command.