There are any number of possible takeaways from tonight’s debate in Las Vegas, but the big one is this: [mc_name name=’Sen. Ted Cruz (R-TX)’ chamber=’senate’ mcid=’C001098′ ] and [mc_name name=’Sen. Marco Rubio (R-FL)’ chamber=’senate’ mcid=’R000595′ ], the two superstars on the stage, finally got attacked in earnest in ways they could not completely avoid, and despite their exceptional skill as debaters, both finally bled a bit. That’s not necessarily a bad thing: the endgame in this race remains highly likely to come down to Rubio and Cruz, and neither was anywhere near fatally wounded tonight. Both showed repeatedly why they are so good at this. And the arguments over their views on immigration, surveillance, Arab dictatorship, and nation-building are not over.
Rubio was clearly more in the crosshairs, as Cruz and [mc_name name=’Sen. Rand Paul (R-KY)’ chamber=’senate’ mcid=’P000603′ ] seemed to be ganging up on him, while only Rubio was really lobbing hits at Cruz. On the other hand, at least Rubio owned his attacks, while Cruz continued his irritating insistence that he was not the one on the attack, even though he rather explicitly called Rubio a liar to his face at least three or four times. One thing I noticed: Rubio and Cruz do not actually dislike each other (yet), but Rubio rather obviously does not like Paul, as his usual happy-warrior demeanor drops when he argues with Paul (he’s not the only one – Trump and Christie both obviously hate Paul). But that too may not be a bad thing, as I suspect more than a few people watching these debates find Rubio likeable, but are not yet sold on what kind of steel he has in his spine.
Both Rubio and Cruz faced some questions they did not really want to answer. When Cruz accused Rubio of lying about whether the USA Freedom Act took away some surveillance tools, Rubio more or less said the answer was classified. When asked about a path to citizenship or legalization for immigrants, Rubio repeated his lengthy (and detailed and eloquent) stock answer about all the things we need to do before we get to that question, then ended by mentioning green cards – but never discussed whether they could be a step to citizenship. Cruz, on the same question, simply refused to give an answer about a path to legalization (which he’s supported in the past) and changed the subject. All of these flashpoints will be harder to filibuster in future debates as the stage shrinks.
There’s also a very serious debate about our orientation towards dictatorships in the Arab and Muslim worlds, and to what extent they are part of the problem, part of the solution, or simply none of our business. It’s a debate that was by no means fully explored, let alone settled, tonight, but it’s increasingly clear that Rubio still leans more towards the view that people like Bashar Assad are part of the problem, while Cruz is more convinced that the alternatives are inevitably worse. This dovetails naturally with the divide between people drawn to Rubio’s optimism and charisma and those drawn to Cruz’s toughness and cynical realism.
Who won this debate? Maybe everyone, maybe no one. There were no knockout blows, and most of the candidates did their own thing well enough – but none flawlessly enough – for partisans of each to claim their own side won. I personally thought Rubio and Christie sounded the most Presidential at this debate, not so much in substance as in talking in serious tones and terminology the way a President would talk about these issues, not just someone reaching for the easy applause line. But there were clearly a number of serious perspectives on the stage, and tone isn’t everything. Plus, of course, I already agree more with Rubio and Christie on most of these issues. (Christie remains a fantastic debater, but his problems with the GOP base are much more obvious when the debate focuses on domestic issues. I think he could have waltzed to the nomination in a different election cycle than this one).
A few other storylines:
-Jeb went hard after Trump, and really got under his skin a few times. Which is not hard; Trump was even going after [mc_name name=’Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-SC)’ chamber=’senate’ mcid=’G000359′ ] and complaining about questions asked in the undercard debate, which none of the other candidates even admitted having watched. That won’t save Jeb at all, and it was evident that trolling is not Jeb’s natural forte, but he can be forgiven at this juncture if he’s just decided to get personal about Trump.
-Trump sounded sincere enough in pledging again to avoid a third-party run that Hugh Hewitt actually applauded his answer. Which is maybe a faux pas, but it’s not like Hewitt’s partisan leanings are a secret here.
-Ben Carson seemed to have made a game effort to be more informed on foreign policy, and he gave some fantastic answers near the end that sounded his original themes about citizen leaders and prizing deeds and faith above words. But it seemed like an elegy for a campaign whose moment has passed.
-The non-aggression pact between Cruz and Trump seems to have returned, as both avoided most of the moderators’ pleas to fight with each other.
Maybe, one hopes, we will finally have fewer candidates onstage when the debates resume in January. This one left a lot of arguments unfinished, but the two biggest stars onstage have passed the point where they can just show up and coast on talent. Now, it’s serious.