What a glum, drab debate. ABC clearly tried to make all the candidates look bad, and the bad blood between the candidates left over from Iowa meant that they just did not care about showing any level of solidarity against the media, as they often do. Christie successfully tore down Marco Rubio for the first hour of the debate, but made himself look like a royal, braying jerk in the process. Normally in these posts, I have three winners and three losers, but I don't think there even were three winners - but there were a whole bunch of losers. Let's go to the scorecard.
1. Ted Cruz - Cruz was nicked by Carson's strong opening on the Carsongate controversy, but I think Cruz's apology on that point came off as sincere and genuine. After that point, Cruz clearly had the strongest night of any of the candidates on stage. Cruz was the first recipient of Martha Raddatz' pointless and dishonest badgering, and handled it well. Cruz did well with the guns trained away from him once again, as everyone focused on Rubio. Cruz's answer on his family member who succumbed to heroin addiction was the most poignant moment of the night and really humanized Cruz in a way that no one has yet seen in this campaign. Cruz was one of the two likeable people on stage tonight.
2. Jeb Bush - Surprisingly strong performance from Bush tonight. He absolutely kneecapped Trump in the exchange on eminent domain. He avoided any meaningful verbal flubs. He appeared wonky but likeable. He was in command of the facts. His story about the guy who died (according to the VA) was charming and humorous. I don't know if it's because the rest of the candidates don't consider him a threat, but Jeb was able to really rise above the fray and be one of the only two positive presences on stage tonight.
1. Marco Rubio - Here's what I don't know: I don't know how much people watch beyond the first 45 minutes of these debates, especially on a Saturday night. If they do, they they saw Rubio really regain his feet after his own Martha Raddatz dishonest badgering session. But the initial exchange with Christie was very bad for him, visually. He was accused by Christie of repeating a pat line, and in response he repeated a pat line, twice. Then after every answer he gave, he was followed by a hounding Chris Christie, who he never brushed back off the plate. Again, Rubio recovered very well for the last two hours of the debate, but the concern for camp Rubio is that people turned off the debate when the clock hit 9pm. Rubio's answer on the life issue was an absolute home run - but who was still watching at 10:15pm?
2. Chris Christie - Christie clearly came to the debate with one goal, which was to trash Marco Rubio. He succeeded to some degree, but made himself look like an especially angry chihuahua in the process. Then, after trashing Rubio for repeating himself, he spent the rest of the night repeating himself over and over and over. I think his victory over Rubio, if it was one, will have to be seen as a pyrrhic one in the end.
3. The RNC, again - It's an absolutely incredible fact that the RNC allowed Martha Raddatz to moderate another debate in which Republicans were on television after her horrible and clearly biased performance in the 2012 Vice Presidential debate. Raddatz is not only a known and vocal critic of Cruz, but she spent the entire night arguing with the candidates about answers they did not give. She repeatedly accused the candidates of not answering questions when the problem actually was that she was not listening. On the other hand, when she asked Trump to answer a question with specifics, and he refused, she never once followed up and pressed the issue.
The entire production of this debate was awful. The lighting was bleak, the pre-debate commentary was geriatric and low energy, former Clinton employee George Stephanopolous was running the show. Bill Kristol had about 15 seconds on air and he was the only thing within sniffing distance of a conservative voice.
This was a worse debate than the CNBC debacle and it had the effect of lowering all the candidates on stage. There were numerous red flags about the entire ABC production that the RNC should have seen coming from a mile away, but did not. What tonight's experience showed was that, in spite of their largely symbolic move to cut NBC out of the debate process, the RNC has actually learned very little about using their negotiating power with the media to ensure a level playing field for Republican candidates. And that's disappointing to all the campaigns.
Also present -
John Kasich - John Kasich pretending to be a happy person is one of the most awkward things you've ever seen. ABC forgot he was there for the first 45 minutes and I remember literally nothing about him being there other than his weird gooberish attempt at being funny when he said "AWWW THANK YOU ALL FOR YOUR PATIENCE SO MUCH." Kind of surprised that he was left alone by both Christie and Bush, but I don't think he made any sort of impression in spite of the opportunity.
Donald Trump - Surprisingly low energy performance from Trump. Got stomped by Bush in the only direct confrontation he had in the night. Mostly faded into the background and spewed nonsense. But he wasn't really a loser because of the likelihood that Rubio took a step back. Call it a draw for Trump.
Ben Carson - Ben Carson had a great opening moment of the debate and may have earned himself some sympathy on the Carsongate issue. But then, every question he answered afterwards, he began with a complaint about how long it had been since the last time he got a question. Very off putting. At least he looked awake during this debate, so it was a marked improvement from previous debates.