Without the Trump clown show sucking all the oxygen out of the room, and with an aggressive team of debate moderators, the candidates finally had a debate that was 100% about policy. The candidates were confronted by uncomfortable video clips of their own past statements, and were largely not allowed evasive answers when they attempted them. At the end of the day, the people of Iowa got the best glimpse they could have possibly gotten of how the candidates would stand up to hostile grilling in a general election.
Without further ado, let's get to the winners and losers from tonight's debate!
1. Fox News - Fox not only managed to flash journalistic integrity by thumbing their nose at the Trump ratings boon and standing by Megyn Kelly, but they by all accounts put on the best debate of the campaign season. They also did not shy away from aggressive questions from any of the candidates, even after the Trump fracas. In fact, the candidates probably got the most aggressive questions of the entire campaign season from the Fox panel - but unlike the CNBC debate, the candidates were confronted with tough questions that were fair and based on the actual flaws in the candidates' records. Fox News gave Republican voters the chance to finally see how the candidates might hold up to genuine grilling against the Clinton machine. Although the first 15 or 20 minutes of the debate were somewhat slow, by the end, no one at all was missing the presence of Trump on the stage.
2. Chris Christie - Of the candidates who were on the stage, Christie easily had the best performance. While I've been very harsh on Christie's more recent performances as pushing a tired, worn out schtick, Christie seems to have recaptured for at least one night some of the magic that made him a star in 2012. One almost imagines that after the unbelievably nasty exchange in New Hampshire earlier this week, after which Christie issued a very un-Christie-like apology, Christie might have engaged in some soul searching about his tone, and the end result was very positive. Also, Christie benefited in this format from not being a Senator - which is to say, he didn't have as much prior video footage on policy that the Fox News team could use to trip him up. Christie came across as tough and belligerent like he always does, but not unlikable like he has in previous debates. In fact, Christie may have put himself in a position to pull off a Monday surprise like Rick Santorum did in 2012 after tonight's debate.
3. Rand Paul - Paul did himself a huge favor getting back on the stage tonight. I try to be objective in these analyses and although I am not a fan of Paul's candidacy, I think he scored meaningful points against both Ted Cruz and Marco Rubio that might help him to reach the 10% threshold on Monday that he needs to plausibly stay in this race. There may be too much water under the bridge for Paul's campaign to recover, but he had a good night tonight. Rand also scored the squarest hit on the Clintons of the night with a reminder of
1. Ted Cruz - Again, I try to be objective in these things, even as much as I like Ted Cruz, he did not have a good night. Somewhere, the cowardly Donald Trump is cackling. As Mark Levin predicted earlier today, Trump's gambit today was likely not about anything other than making Ted Cruz the central target of tonight's debate, and it worked. In the past, Cruz has come out ahead in spite of being the center of attention, but tonight, he was off his game. He had a rough first half hour in particular, when he was beat up upon by almost all the other candidates, and essentially responded with a complaint about the moderating. When Wallace responded with an acerbic, "Sir, this is a debate," his response had an almost petulant tone. The exchange with Rubio later, when Rubio accused him of being untruthful on immigration, followed so soon after the video montage Megyn Kelly had played of him saying he wanted the bill to pass, was an especially bad moment. Cruz really needed a better performance than he got tonight.
2. Ben Carson - Someone explain to me the continuing raison d'etre of Ben Carson's candidacy. It's one thing that he constantly appears asleep, but if you are able to stay awake and listen to what he is saying, it is so frequently apparent that he has no idea what he is talking about in terms of policy, that I don't know who really thinks he would be the best President in the country right now. Donald Trump is an egomaniac, a pathological liar, and an existential threat to the conservative movement and therefore the country, but I can at least see how some people might get snookered by his schtick. Carson, I really don't get at all. Also, his closing? Holy cow.
3. Jeb Bush - Jeb Bush is a super nice, super decent person. I kind of liked him a little bit more after tonight's debate. But man, he is not good at this format. He had several openings for huge attacks against both Rubio and Cruz and flubbed them both. He tried to explain that he supported Rubio's efforts in the Gang of 8 because, and I quote, "I believe that when you get elected, I believe you ought to do things." Oh. Well, okay. Also I'm not really sure how well Bush's open embrace of both his family and the label "establishment" will play at the end of the day.
1. John Kasich - So much fruit in so many pieces.
2. Marco Rubio - I find Rubio's performance in this debate more or less impossible to quantify. In the opening of the debate, he looked like he was higher energy than normal, which I took as an encouraging sign. But then as the debate went on, it looked instead like he just drank wayyyy too much coffee. I said before the debate that Rubio needed to show some fire tonight but I have changed my mind: Rubio needs to stick with what he does best, which is to be calm and mostly optimistic. I think he scored a very square hit on Cruz on the immigration fight, but was uncharacteristically listless when responding to attacks from Christie and Bush, and didn't always have his trademark snappy comeback at the ready. He still had some of the more memorable lines of the night, like "I am not leaving the stage no matter what you ask me," and "I don't believe we have to destroy our economy to save our environment," but I don't know if Rubio did enough to help himself tonight.