No one expected this six months months ago. Then, Republican political strategists were simply waiting for Trump's bombastic reality-show campaign to implode, and for so-called "establishment" candidates to power past Cruz, who had called his own party's leader a liar, on the Senate floor.
Neither has happened. Cruz holds a slight lead over Trump in Iowa barely two weeks before the Feb. 1 caucuses. A win there would boost the Texas senator's attempt to overcome Trump's substantial lead in New Hampshire, which votes eight days later and will shape the contours of decisive primary fights thereafter.
Thursday night's debate on Fox Business Channel in Charleston, South Carolina, underscored the centrality of the Trump vs. Cruz dynamic that Republican veterans — who fear either would fare poorly in a general election — are gradually resigning themselves to.