I don’t think anyone missed Donald!
I think last night’s debate was, overall, the best of this primary season. First, Donald Trump was not in attendance, so the other candidates had more airtime for substantive debate. Granted, it was not quite as entertaining without “The Donald”, but that is not really the purpose of a debate. Second, it reunited the very professional Fox News trio of moderators, Megyn Kelly, Brett Baier and Chris Wallace.
They asked some tough questions, and introduced the technique of playing a video montage of the candidates discussing their views on an issue, in this case Rubio and Cruz on immigration, and then challenging them to defend their position. Some pundits argue that this is why Donald Trump chose to sit this one out. Can you imagine some of the video they could have played of him? They certainly have a plethora of controversial clips available. Incidentally, Trump still insists his absence was due to Megyn Kelly being a moderator (he does not think she treats him fairly) and FNC’s “childish” response to his refusal to participate. I personally don’t think Donald Trump should cast aspersions on another person’s comments, when his own have been so villainous.
We did not see the usual personal attacks and infighting between the candidates last night, which was a refreshing change. There was a little back and forth between them, but it was limited to policy. This debate gave viewers a feel for what this primary would be like minus Donald Trump. His presence on the stage seems to bring out the worst in all the candidates. So, how did each candidate fair?
I think Rand Paul and Jeb Bush probably had their strongest showings of any debate thus far. Both of them made some good points that brought applause from the audience, but it will not elevate their campaigns enough to threaten the positions of the top three, Trump, Cruz and Rubio. Still, they have to feel good about their performance.
Ben Carson did not help himself at all. With little opportunity to talk, he seemed to fade into the background. When he did have airtime, he did not utilize it as well as the other candidates. I still like and admire Ben Carson, but I think his time in the race is ending.
John Kasich had a decent night. He was not quite as long-winded as he usually is, which is nice, but like Carson, I don’t think he helped his numbers. Supposedly, he is polling well in New Hampshire, but overall he is not a strong candidate.
Chris Christie had a good night. His line, “The days for the Clinton’s in public housing are over” was classic, and it garnered him a lot of applause. I think Christie is improving in some of the polls, but I still don’t think he has a real chance of being the GOP candidate. Asked by Wallace if he thinks “Bridgegate” will present an obstacle to him if he does secure the nomination, he insisted that investigations have already cleared him of any involvement. He opened himself up to attack when he called for defunding Planned Parenthood, but Rubio did not take advantage of the opportunity to call him out again for his past support for the organization. Good for Rubio!
The main event was between Rubio and Cruz, the two frontrunners after Trump. Cruz started the evening with one of his orations. He uses these events to display his skill as a seasoned debater, but he came up short last night. He took a shot at the absent Trump, and then got into a semi-argument with Chris Wallace where he accused him of using his questions to incite attacks on Cruz from the other candidates. This brought boos from the audience. Wallace reminded him that it was, in fact, a debate which led Cruz to educate him on the definition of a debate. Cruz then joked that he would “have to leave the stage” if these “mean” questions continued. It was an attempt at humor, and another shot at Trump, but it fell flat.
Rubio came out strong from the beginning by attacking Obama’s failed policies, and informing the audience of Hillary Clinton’s suggestion that, as president, she would consider appointing Barack Obama to the Supreme Court. This would be the kiss of death to the country! Rubio also emphasized that she is “disqualified” from serving as commander in chief because of her ineptitude on national security, referencing her email scandal. He totally dismissed mentions of Donald Trump, and spent his time attacking Hillary Clinton and the importance of this election.
It was a good night for Rubio, and most pundits agree that he emerged the winner of the evening. Frank Luntz, a purveyor of focus groups, said that his audience was definitely in the Rubio court, and that some have even switched their allegiance to Rubio after his powerful performance. They said he was “presidential”, and strong on the issues. They also liked the fact that he did not engage in personal attacks. At one point, Chris Wallace questioned him on the factuality of accusations he made about Chris Christie in the last debate. Marco deflected the invitation to attack, directing viewers to his website for confirmation on Christie, and returned to the issues of the election. It was a shrewd political move on his part, and kept valuable airtime focused on him, not on Christie.
Megyn Kelly was aggressive with Rubio and Cruz on immigration, but it was a fair topic to cover. Rubio’s response was not argumentative, but he reaffirmed that he has never supported blanket amnesty and then outlined his current stance on the issue. Cruz engaged in some back and forth with Megyn Kelly, where he challenged the context of her video clips, and once again tried to prove that his efforts were a “poison pill”. He said his intention was to use language to outsmart his colleagues and ultimately defeat the bill. Megyn Kelly wasn’t having it.
Jeb Bush went after Rubio for his participation in the “gang of eight”, while simultaneously admitting that when Rubio solicited his support on the bill, Jeb backed him up, so the attack did not have its desired effect. Rand Paul took issue with Cruz over his past support for legalization, and emphasized that Cruz is not the “purist” on immigration that he proclaims to be.
From the polls and media coverage today, it appears that a consensus is the debate was a win for Rubio, and damaging to Cruz. Rubio did what he does best, and stuck to the point of this whole exercise, which is to defeat Hillary Clinton and retake the White House. Cruz came off as a whiner, and his bickering with Wallace and Kelly did not sit well with the audience.
Monday’s Iowa caucus results will be interesting, as the winning slot is still up for grabs, despite the polls. Historically, an underdog has emerged victorious as Santorum did in 2012, and Huckabee in 2008. I think the timing of last night’s debate will work to Rubio’s advantage, and will highlight to Iowa voters Trump’s true character. His pouting over FNC’s refusal to remove Megyn Kelly from the roster of moderators is juvenile and unbecoming to a presidential candidate.
The primary is now entering the exciting phase where we will see the potential for each candidate to snag the grand prize of becoming the GOP nominee. May the best man win!