This was, in many respects, the best debate of the season. The moderators kept the focus for the largest part on the most meaningful conflict of the night – which was on the differences between Cruz and Rubio. All of the candidates (including, surprisingly, Jeb Bush and John Kasich) had their moments. There was a refreshing lack of wedge questions and gotcha moments. All in all, both CNN and the candidates acquitted themselves well. Let’s take a look at who the winners and losers were in tonight’s debate.
1. Sen. Ted Cruz (R-TX). I’m trying to separate my personal feelings here with how I think Sen. Ted Cruz (R-TX)‘s performance will play with the electorate at large. Personally, I reacted very negatively to Cruz’s performance in tonight’s debate, on a number of occasions. I can think of no defensible reason why Cruz responds to being insulted by Trump with “I think Trump’s great,” whereas he responds to Rubio challenging him on policy by repeatedly calling him a liar to his face. I get the cynical political play that Cruz is making here, and it’s doubtless serving him well, but I intensely dislike it on a visceral level, and I question how dedicated to the movement a guy who is nicer to Donald Trump than Sen. Marco Rubio (R-FL) is.
All that having been said, I think Cruz’s performance tonight will likely endear him to most conservative voters, and I don’t know how many will follow up to realize that he flatly mischaracterized his own position on immigration. Cruz came into this debate with the most to lose, and I don’t think anyone laid a glove on him that will hurt his continued rise in the polls, and for that reason he has to be seen as the winner. Cruz remains uniquely suited to capitalize on anti-establishment anger from actual conservatives, and continued his push towards painting Rubio into the establishment corner.
2. Sen. Marco Rubio (R-FL) – If any candidate on stage was put into an unfair place by the moderators, it was Rubio, who was constantly put into “let’s you and him fight” with all the other candidates on the stage. Fortunately for Rubio, he proved himself to be up to the task. Rubio’s stance on immigration is what it is. He again reiterated that he learned from the Gang of 8 experience, and he talked with believability about his path going forward on the issue, but of course there remains an extremely vocal portion of the base that will hold that against him forever. Rubio can do nothing with these folks, but they do not represent a majority of the GOP either in terms of the policy or in terms of the most important issue to Republican voters. As much as the comments section of Internet websites will tell you to the contrary, these remain the facts.
Rubio’s opening was also clearly the strongest of the field, and he had the best opening half hour of the debate, which is the most important segment of what was an interminable night of debating, after which many voters doubtlessly tuned out.
3. Sen. Rand Paul (R-KY) – A debate on foreign policy really shows how time spent in the Senate gives candidates a leg up when talking about foreign policy. While I don’t always agree with Sen. Rand Paul (R-KY) on policy, he clearly displayed a deep knowledge of the issues and had a coherent view of our way forward in the Middle East. He also avoided intentionally alienating mainstream Republican voters while yet clearly staking out his more libertarian positions, a tightrope that he has not always walked well.
Sen. Rand Paul (R-KY) is also clearly the only person who has yet been located who can get under Sen. Marco Rubio (R-FL)‘s skin. Although Cruz called Rubio a liar several times to his face, Rubio was able to respond without rancor or malice. On the other hand, you could tell clearly from his body language that Rubio dislikes Paul on a personal level and bristles at his attacks.
Paul definitely had some weak moments in the debate. He repeated his line about Rubio and Schumer twice that was a dud the first time he tried it. At one point, Wolf Blitzer asked him what his position was on the Syrian refugees who were currently in the country, and he said basically “I don’t have one yet.” But overall this was the strongest debate performance from Sen. Rand Paul (R-KY) yet.
Honorable mention: Jeb Bush. In an unbelievable turn of events, Jeb Bush got the better of Donald Trump all night. How much might have been different in this year’s race if this version of Jeb Bush had shown up to the first debate? He actually provoked the audience to boo Trump twice, and avoided any of the embarrassingly awkward moments that he has become famous for. Unfortunately for Bush, one gets the sense that the voters are now tired of the insult fight between the two, and this will not move his poll numbers, or bring back his donors.
1. Ben Carson. What an unbelievably cringe-inducing performance from Carson, who came into this debate desperately needing to resurrect his campaign. His opening statement asked for a strange moment of silence that lasted about two seconds, and it went downhill from there. His first words in response to a question were, literally, “I have to complain a little bit,” and he then went on to do just that, offering a complaint about his speaking time that would have done Jim Webb proud. Moreover, compared to everyone else on the stage not named Donald Trump, his knowledge base of the issues was exposed all night as severely lacking. If anything, this performance will accelerate his crash in the polls, not reverse it.
2. Donald Trump. Trump thrives on airtime and being the center of attention, and he was neither tonight. One gets the sense that even the media is tired of his schtick and isn’t particularly interested in what he has to say. He was furthermore drubbed twice so thoroughly by Jeb Bush (of all people) that he resorted to complaining that sounded like abject whining about how unfair it all is. Throughout the night, Trump was the antithesis of the alpha that he has often been in these events. His knowledge of the issues was basically the same level of knowledge you would expect from a particularly chatty and obnoxious NYC cab driver. All in all, it’s impossible to predict what Trump’s supporters will do, but he did nothing to assuage his doubters about his fitness as a foreign policy leader.
3. Chris Christie. I’ve been a fan of Christie’s performance in prior debates, but he seems to have only one schtick, which is his, “Gosh, I sure am tired of all the things everyone else on stage is talking about.” It was compelling before when he was chiding everyone for bickering, but tonight, when actual substantive debate was occurring, it was merely tiresome. The media spent the lead up time to the debate talking about Christie’s comeback, but nothing he said tonight will aid that, if it even is a real thing.
1. John Kasich – Easily his best debate performance so far. He didn’t insult Republicans and Republican voters, and sounded instead relatively knowledgeable and wonky. He wasn’t any more likeable, but he managed to avoid being dislikeable, and for Kasich that is a huge improvement.
2. Carly Fiorina – I mean, I am told she was present. I can’t really recall a single moment she had in the debate. Nothing happened that will get her back on the cable talk shows, which is what her campaign desperately needs to survive.