In spite of some of the easiest questioning by moderators so far in 2016, Thursday night’s debate was a good one. Some of my pre-debate predictions came true, and some did not. Who do you think won? Who do you think lost? Let’s go down by candidate to review each one’s performance.
Ben Carson: Again, I have no idea why he’s on the stage. He is easily one of the worst candidates I’ve ever seen for any national or statewide office. He has the misfortune of having the same level of understanding about policy issues as Donald Trump without the macho guy routine. Sadly, his campaign might continue to swindle money off of good people based on the fact that he was at least on stage last night.
Donald Trump: He was going to have a terrible debate. Cruz had taken him out to the woodshed and shown how demonstrably false Trump’s claims about Cruz’s eligibility were. The Texas senator had fantastic rebuttals to every single Trump line of attack and visibly enjoyed showing off his superior debating skills. However, no good deed goes unpunished. The only way to make Donald Trump seem likable would be to allow him to talk about New York City during the terrorist attacks of 9/11 – and Ted Cruz lobbed a softball right into Trump’s sweet spot. The businessman hit a home run. Other than the Cruz fireworks, it was a status quo debate for Trump. But, I think that’s the key for him. If he can just ‘do no harm’ and allow the media to keep being his ad machine, he’ll continue to do well in the polls.
If Cruz can continue to hit him and do some damage in Iowa, I think you will begin to see the unraveling occur when people actually start voting.
John Kasich: Governor Kasich was “meh”. He and his team are too stubborn to get a real debate coach that will teach him to control his hand movements. It is so distracting for me that I often have to read the transcript of what he said afterwards to get an idea for the point he was trying to make. However, he avoided being a total scrooge and interrupting everyone – so maybe he gets some points for improvement. Otherwise, he doesn’t get a whole lot of attention for his performance.
Jeb Bush: Well, he tried. He defended Christie (while Right to Rise pummels the New Jersey governor in New Hampshire) when Rubio went on the offensive, he tried to attack Trump once again, and actually had a couple of good lines. The media will be so consumed with Rubio v Cruz, Cruz v Trump, and Christie v Rubio, that I’m not sure anyone will even remember the good points he had. Again, when Trump essentially said that Jeb was a wimp, all Jeb could muster was a “Come on, man” and that awful, weak smile. I think “Come on, man” is a perfect description of Jeb(!) 2016.
Ted Cruz: Senator Cruz had a great night up until he essentially left the door wide open for Trump in his “New York values” answer. That didn’t sit well with a lot of people. Furthermore, when Rubio unleashed his whole opposition research file on Cruz in the last ten minutes of the debate, Cruz tried another weak attempt at making a joke about it. His ideal response should’ve been, “Ya know Marco, I don’t know that I’ve ever seen someone take such relish and put so much time into researching Republicans’ history in order to savage them at the earliest political convenience. Oh, wait! Yes, I have – her name is Hillary Clinton!” Instead, he actually tried to respond to the whole cornucopia of sludge Rubio heaved over at him, and looked weak in the process. In short, his people loved his performance and he succeeded in looking stronger than Trump in their scrap over his own eligibility to run for president. I think you’ll see Cruz back at the top of polls in Iowa this coming week.
His challenge will now be to continue to hammer Trump on his record as a New York, Manhattan liberal. Cruz is perfectly positioned to place the dagger, he just has to have the political fortitude to do it.
Marco Rubio: The guy is a natural. He probably wowed a lot of people in that debate with his attacks on Hillary and succeeded in looking tough and mature in his answers. However, his fights with Cruz and Christie present a problem for Rubio. First, I think the strongest rationale Rubio has for his candidacy is hope. He represents, for a lot of Republicans, the hope that we can win elections again, the hope that we can turn this country around, and the hope that the American Dream can be achieved by every American who works hard and does the right thing. You didn’t see a lot of that from Rubio in Thursday’s debate. Instead of articulating conservative reforms for what ails the country, he had to contend with both Christie and Cruz – taking his focus off of his strength and into a realm that doesn’t fit Marco’s personality.
As I pointed out in the podcast of YoungGuns that will be up in the coming days, Rubio’s attack against Christie just didn’t seem…real. He waffled between specifying Christie’s weaknesses and talking about President Obama’s failures in the same areas. While this can be a devastating debate tactic, Rubio didn’t get detailed enough to make it stick, which allowed Christie to come back and easily refute the claims. I guarantee you Senator Rubio had ample specifics on Christie’s gun record to make the attack hurt – but he didn’t.
As far as his ongoing war with Cruz over immigration, I still think Rubio should’ve taken the high road and let his campaign and SuperPac tar and feather Cruz. Instead, Marco went after Cruz in a very high intensity way. Now, I understand why Rubio crammed all of the 11 or so attacks on Cruz’s record into one oppo bomb. But, I think he would’ve been better off had he limited it to a “weak on defense” attack that entailed only one or two facts about Cruz’s record. That would’ve allowed voters to have something simple, packaged, and direct to chew on.
All in all, Rubio had a good debate. He was quick, feistier than usual, and as articulate as he always is. He just needs to remember what his strengths are, play to them, and make the other candidates come to him. In debates, it’s always better to respond to attacks than initiate them.
Chris Christie: I would argue that this was Christie’s best debate so far. He not only got to talk about entitlement reform (thanks Marco!), jobs, and tax reform, but he also got the better of Rubio in two different exchanges. I’ve already detailed above why I thought Rubio fumbled his attack on Christie, but I also think it’s worth looking at how Christie handled himself. In my last post, I warned other candidates about the perils of engaging the New Jersey governor in hand to hand combat (Marco obviously didn’t read my post). Christie is very comfortable verbally sparring with anyone in an in-your-face kind of way – and it showed on Thursday night. As Christie was reminding Rubio about how he had scolded Bush a couple of months ago for attacking him, Christie was physically turned toward Marco and speaking directly at him. Rubio was not looking at Christie, but instead looking down at his paper, writing notes. This may seem small, but it plays directly into Christie’s hand in the perception game that Christie continued to build on later in the debate.
When given a chance, Christie employed his favorite term of “petulant child” when referring to the president and enjoyed telling the audience that they were going to kick Obama’s “rear-end out of the White House” come next fall. This is classic Chris Christie. And yes, intellectuals, pundits, journalists might cringe at the rough-and-tumble language, but Christie has realized what the mood of the electorate is and is utilizing his strengths in attempts to show them that he can be Trump-like, but with experience. Rubio then played directly into Christie’s hand when Christie jumped into another fight between Rubio and Cruz over Cruz’s tax plan. Christie butted in and reminded everyone that the original question was on entitlements. When Marco then tried to offer his opinion on the issue, Christie thundered: “No, you had your chance, Marco. You blew it.” and proceeded to answer the question – without Rubio interrupting him.
Again, many may believe that Christie was over the top and boorish. But, in 2016 I think Christie has perfectly positioned himself as a “Take Crap from No One” guy who has the experience to do the job. With the electorate in their current mood, that could turn out to be a potent combination.
In this debate, talent mattered. Christie, Rubio, and Cruz had the best nights. With Trump still doing well in the polls, I would have to include him as well. But, with these candidates, I think we can safely say we have a Final Four. Let me know on Twitter if you agree @CodyHall09