NOTE: This post is from the January 14th debate on Fox Business. For the January 28th Fox News Debate, please go here.
The lighting was harsh. The makeup was caked on. After a slow opening segment, the punches started flying, and a raucous crowd was engaged from the first minute onward. At the end of the day, all of the major fights that we expected to have occurred, including Trump v. Cruz, Christie v. Rubio, Jeb Bush v. Himself, and John Kasich v. his own arms.
For the first two hours of the debate, Cruz and Rubio were buddies, then the debate basically ended with a brutal exchange between the two that lasted about five full minutes and was punctuated by raised voices and accusations of dishonesty on both sides.
Without further ado, let's get right to the winners and losers for tonight.
1. Marco Rubio - Rubio was the immediate beneficiary of the fact that Ted Cruz decided to turn his fire on Donald Trump. There is no other candidate on stage who can come close to engaging him on style (with apologies to Chris Christie), and only Cruz has a better ideological pedigree. Rubio got off virtually every memorable line of the night, including "I hate to interrupt this episode of Court TV" and "Well, that sounds a lot like a country where people are afraid the President is going to take their guns." I think he probably lost the battle of the pre-debate ads with Jeb Bush, but the only person who confronted him at all throughout the night was Christie, who clearly lost. If anyone remembers anything from tonight other than the Cruz/Trump imbroglio, it will be one of Rubio's answers. Even Trump was forced to concede that Rubio had a great point about trade with China. Late in the debate, when Rubio did engage with Cruz, it was on territory that was much friendlier to voters than immigration, which is Cruz's problematic support of the value added tax. When Cruz and Rubio finally tussled over immigration, it was 11:09pm ET, and only people who are already decided were probably still watching at that point.
2. Ted Cruz. Cruz finally confronted Trump head on and came off the clear winner. I think Trump won the exchange over "New York Values" (which was not a great attack from Cruz to start with, and he should probably just drop it or apologize). Otherwise, Cruz clearly won the "birther" exchange, pointing out Trump's embarrassing flip flops on the issue, and taking advantage of the fact that Trump ill-advisedly tried to cite Laurence Tribe as a favorable source for his new position on Cruz's citizenship. He also flipped Trump's usual schtick on his head, saying that after he wins the nomination, maybe Trump could be his Vice President. As noted above, at about the 11:09pm ET mark Ted Cruz and Marco Rubio started tearing each other's face off. I think Rubio came out slightly ahead in that exchange, but I'm not sure who was still watching at that point. I am also not sure of the wisdom of responding to a lengthy broadside from an opponent like Rubio with the statement "half of that was false."
3. Donald Trump. Trump was frequently booed by what appeared to be a fairly pro-establishment crowd, but I don't think he did anything tonight to hurt himself with his followers, and that's all he needs to do to succeed from this point forward. His supporters largely aren't conservative, so they don't care that he's citing Laurence Tribe. He flat out called the NYT Editorial board liars regarding the claim that he supported 45% tarriffs on Chinese goods, and I would not be surprised if the NYT comes out with audio tomorrow that directly contradicts this claim. He yet again chickened out from an in person confrontation with a female Republican politician when he basically bowed and scraped before Nikki Haley, who was in the audience. But none of these things matter. Nothing matters. Trump is Trump, his followers love him no matter what he does or says. Right now, they are more numerous than the followers of any other candidate, as he repeatedly points out and cites as proof that he is factually correct. The center does not hold, Sweet Meteor of Death, take us all.
1. Ben Carson. Where do I begin? In the opening sequence, he looked like he had just taken a heavy dose of Ativan. When he was asked his first question (about 20 minutes in), he opened the bidding by complaining about how long it took him to get a question. I can recall that on more than one occasion during this race, Mike Huckabee had to wait over 40 minutes for his first question, and never complained. And that's the first time anyone's temperament has been unfavorably compared to Mike Huckabee. Carson's answers, as always, lacked either factual support, germaneness to the question that was asked, or even good sense (such as his rambling answer about terrorists detonating nuclear weapons in our exo-atmosphere and simultaneously mounting a cyber-attack, I guess against the computers we have that don't work anymore). Carson's performance was more or less a metaphor for his entire campaign, which is hemorrhaging staff and plummeting to earth in the polls.
2. John Kasich. Kasich looked all night like his limbs were being controlled by a not-very-talented and possibly-drunk puppeteer. I don't even know what John Kasich said because I was so mesmerized by watching his arms flop around, making gestures that were seemingly unconnected with the actual words that were coming out of his mouth. Given what John Kasich usually says, that's probably a good thing.
3. Chris Christie. Chris Christie is a petty, mean-spirited man. His schtick was cathartic to watch in 2010 when the victims of it were public sector unions that were crippling groaning state budgets across the country. When it's turned on other Republicans, it's just tiresome and repetitive. Pretty much every time I see him lean forward to stick his gourd-shaped head into a discussion, I know exactly what he's going to say, "I'd like to interrupt this debate about things no one could possibly care about to tell you why I, as a no-nonsense prosecutor, have the unique experience to solve everything." Half the time the point he's making is just factually wrong.
4. Jeb Bush. Bush looked like a perfectly decent fellow on stage but repeatedly bungled his sentences, mixed his metaphors, stuttered, and shrugged excessively. After a surprisingly strong performance in the CNN/Salem Debate in December, the old Bush was back on stage. Perhaps that's just as well, in the end.