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Tara Setmayer: No matter the question, Trump defaults to same overarching themes

Ted Cruz sets his sights on exposing Trump's hypocrisy, but it's not clear it resonates, she says

Editor’s Note: Tara Setmayer is former communications director for Rep. Dana Rohrabacher, R-California, and a CNN political commentator. Follow her on Twitter @tarasetmayer. The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of the author.

CNN  — 

It’s no secret why Donald Trump doesn’t want to do any more debates. Despite his delusions of grandeur, thinking he’s done so wonderfully in all of them, the reality is he really hasn’t. He’s lost his temper, name-called, and in arguably one of the lowest points of primary debate history, referred to his manhood. Not exactly a reincarnation of the Lincoln-Douglas debates.

Once you get beyond his histrionics at these debates, Trump is exposed for his alarming lack of policy knowledge on a whole host of issues and is unable to explain clearly how he plans to implement the few he does. Lack of substance isn’t a new criticism for Trump’s campaign, but he’s managed to get a pass from voters on it because he’s tapped into a vein of voter disgust unlike anyone else.

Tara Setmayer

Trump has flip-flopped on key issues, backtracked on others, even flat out changed his mind on some, but those are pesky details his supporters don’t seem to care about. According to Trump, the only thing we need to know is he is the only one who can negotiate “better deals,” so we can “win” and “make America great again.”

The shtick may work well on the stump, but it doesn’t go over as well when he’s on a debate stage where he is held accountable for his actions and challenged by his opponents directly. Trump doesn’t get to control the narrative up there, and he doesn’t like it.

So it was no surprise when Trump announced he would skip the next debate, leading John Kasich to pull out, too, thereby forcing Fox News to cancel it altogether. CNN provided an evening of town hall-style interviews Monday with all five remaining candidates on both sides of the aisle. Of course, Trump had no problem with this format. He thrives on his ability to frustrate even the most seasoned interviewers by using his uncanny ability to steer the conversation wherever he wants, no matter the initial question. Dodge, deflect, change the subject, repeat.

Trump telegraphed his campaign’s messaging strategy moving forward. No matter the question asked, he defaulted to the same basic overarching themes: We aren’t winning overseas, the United States is broke and only he can negotiate good deals, and the nominating rules are somehow unfair if there’s a contested convention.

When challenged on his controversial stance on reducing American involvement in NATO and how our allies would react to such a move, Trump pivoted to our country is “under attack in every way,” we are $19 trillion in debt and can’t afford it. For Trump, the geopolitical implications are relegated to an afterthought to keep the message simple. Or perhaps he simply has no idea about those details, so he deflects.

On the Israeli-Palestinian peace process? Trump reassures us he’s a great dealmaker. He repeats the absurd notion that participating as the grand marshal of the Salute to Israel Parade in 2004 somehow validates his claim that no one knows Israel better than he does.

Perhaps one of the most telling exchanges came when Trump was asked if he’d follow the Republican Party nominating rules if he failed to reach the 1,237-delegate majority to win the nomination before the convention in Cleveland. Not only did he refuse to say yes, Trump launched into a diatribe complaining how the entire process is “mathematically unfair” because he had to compete against so many candidates. What?

So there it is. Trump’s creating a false narrative that the whole thing was rigged from the beginning to deny him and the will of the people if he doesn’t win the majority of delegates before Cleveland. It couldn’t possibly be that over half of the Republican electorate rejects Trump based on the merits, or lack thereof. Oh no. It’s the system’s fault. Trump’s previous veiled threats about potential riots at the convention were not an accident. Trump’s surrogates and apologists in the media have already begun to set the stage.

Sen. Ted Cruz took the opportunity to showcase his plan of attack against Trump, poking holes in the notion that he’s anti-establishment. Cruz went down a litany of liberal lawmakers Trump has funded over the years and declared, “His whole campaign is built on a lie. Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton are the flip side of the same coin. … He made billions buying influence in Washington, and she made millions selling it.”

Exposing Trump’s hypocrisy on key issues from immigration to trade is clearly a Cruz campaign theme moving forward. Whether that resonates at this point remains to be seen.

Kasich continued his happy warrior routine, vowing to stay the course despite recent CNN polling that showed 70% of GOP primary voters think he should drop out. However, the same poll also showed Kasich beating Clinton by the largest margin. His argument is electability in the general, but he has a herculean task to get there.

Clinton and Bernie Sanders offered more of the same. Despite having virtually no path to victory, Sanders is staying the course. He continues to outperform Clinton with millennials and liberals, and his supporters are more enthusiastic.

Even though Clinton is the clear Democratic front-runner, head-to-head, Sanders beats all the GOP candidates by larger margins, whereas Clinton only beats Trump, pulls even with Cruz and actually loses to Kasich by 6 percentage points, according to the latest CNN/ORC International Poll.

It looks like both sides have their own nuisance candidates vowing to take it all the way to the convention floor. In this wild political season, how that plays out is anyone’s guess.

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