At GOP town hall, Trump's weaknesses and Cruz's strengths

The Milwaukee GOP town hall in 90 seconds
cruz trump kasich townhall nightof photos comp

    JUST WATCHED

    The Milwaukee GOP town hall in 90 seconds

MUST WATCH

The Milwaukee GOP town hall in 90 seconds 01:30

Story highlights

  • Buck Sexton: The Ted Cruz of conservative, small government showed up at town hall, revealing humanity, intellect and poise
  • He says Trump had funny lines but looked weak on issue of going negative on spouses

Buck Sexton is a political commentator for CNN and host of "The Buck Sexton Show" on TheBlaze. He was previously a CIA counterterrorism analyst. The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of the author.

(CNN)With the Wisconsin primary less than a week away, Tuesday night's GOP town hall was by no means a pro forma event; it was one of the last real opportunities for the remaining three candidates to adapt their campaign narratives before the delegate math is set. Only two candidates -- Donald Trump and Ted Cruz -- have a mathematical shot at the nomination, and the CNN forum gave voters a chance to size them up while they are locked in an all-out campaign dogfight.

If you are a small-government, constitutional conservative, the Ted Cruz you wanted to see showed up. His strengths -- his intellectual firepower, policy depth and unshakable poise -- were on full display.
His defense of more robust counterterrorism measures after the Brussels attacks, including increased surveillance when necessary of Muslim communities in the United States, showed that he won't back down, despite the media firestorm he ignited with his comments on the issue last week.
It was in some of Cruz's traditionally weaker stylistic areas, however -- authenticity and charisma -- that the senator managed to elevate his performance in a way that could affect the upcoming Wisconsin primary.
For better or worse, Cruz often sounds like he is reading off a teleprompter even when he speaks extemporaneously. While his supporters may see this as further evidence of his brilliance, for some voters not yet on Team Cruz, his delivery can sound over-rehearsed and preachy.
In political rhetoric, the difference between earnest and oily is often very slight, and tonally, Cruz sometimes falls on the wrong side of that divide. This has been a continuing liability for him.
But Tuesday night felt different. Cruz not only appeared presidential, at times he exuded a genuinely calm, caring demeanor. When he spoke of his sister, whom he tragically lost to heroin addiction, the voters got a look into the soul of a man who, while tremendously ambitious and self-assured, has also suffered, lost and struggled.
CNN Reality Check team inspects GOP candidates' claims
cruz trump kasich townhall nightof photos comp

    JUST WATCHED

    CNN Reality Check team inspects GOP candidates' claims

MUST WATCH

CNN Reality Check team inspects GOP candidates' claims 02:54
If there is a missing component to Cruz as a candidate, it is in his ability to project empathy, to connect with people, to make it seem like he understands their problems, and to show some scars, too.
Finally, after months of debates, countless campaign stops and endless interviews, GOP voters were able to see Cruz as a guy who, if not the most obvious choice for a beer and a friendly chat, wouldn't be a half-bad one if you gave him a chance.
As for the front-runner: Trump had what was, for him, a standard night. He showed his usual showman's command of the stage, with memorable one-liners and a few truly funny moments. When Cruz misspoke and said he was from Florida, Trump later corrected the record with a quip that Cruz was from Texas, "or maybe Canada" -- a schoolyard taunt, but an amusing one nonetheless.
It was Anderson Cooper, however, who landed the biggest verbal haymaker of the night. His "that's the argument of a 5-year-old" line, in response to Trump's dubious claim that Cruz went negative and involved spouses in the campaign first, was a near knockdown blow. And this was part of a broader theme for the evening.
To any open and fair-minded viewer, Trump did nothing to allay skepticism of his temperament as that of a would-be commander in chief. For all his grandiose talk about winning and hyper-capitalist braggadocio, there is something petty and small about how Trump handles his critics. This is nothing new, but when he mocks the looks of a political opponent's wife, and then denies that was his intent, he looks deeply unpresidential.
For voters who are not already diehard Trump fans, such antics make Trump appear less a man who is proud of his accomplishments and more like one who is constantly overcompensating for his shortcomings. That's the sort of revelation that, if it caught on with the electorate as widespread perception, could be the difference between victory and defeat for The Donald.
As for John Kasich, he had his own hour to make his case to the voters; five minutes would have sufficed. Sure, he can't win mathematically, and yes, he is far too liberal on issues like immigration for the conservative base to even consider him. Kasich seems well aware of his precarious position.
His pitch remains that he has done a good job as governor of Ohio, he is about as controversial as the color beige, and his father was a mailman, so he knows the working man's struggle. According to the Kasich fantasy narrative, eventually the GOP will realize it has lost its way and at the convention, it will cast out its demons by handing over the nomination to a guy who has won one state.
Fat chance, but as Kasich would probably insist, that's a chance nonetheless.
What will be the impact of Tuesday night's town hall? Wisconsin will tell the tale soon enough. GOP Wisconsinites can solidify Trump as the front-runner, or finally prove that Cruz wins in head-to-head matchups in key states.
This may create momentum for the winning candidate that eventually leads to the nomination, one way or another. But when those votes are counted next week, we may well look back at Tuesday night and realize that a few key moments on the town hall stage helped turn the tide.