The big reveal never happened last night, as Donald Trump followed through on his threat to hold a competing event to the RNC debate on Fox New in Iowa last night, but the remaining candidates spent the night mixing it up. After the moderators attempted to “focus on the elephant that’s not in the room” in the first segment, though, the candidates mainly ignored Trump to debate each other. Marco Rubio and Ted Cruz got the most time to speak, and also the most preparation from the moderators, making it look at times as though these were the top two candidates in Iowa.
Frank Luntz’ ubiquitous focus group called the debate for Rubio:
They weren’t terribly happy with Donald Trump for skipping the debate, but only a few thought it would matter. One concluded that it hurt Cruz the most, and that might have been Trump’s strategy:
I thought most of the candidates in both debates acquitted themselves reasonably well, with the exception of Ben Carson, who still looked out of his depth on stage. At one point, Carson appeared surprised to take a question, and his answer showed that he wasn’t prepared for it when it came. Jim Gilmore offered a pretty good argument for an appointment as Secretary of Defense. Otherwise, for the most part, everyone other than Cruz and Rubio provided familiar performances and debate strategies, right down to Chris Christie’s routine-but-still-effective “a pox on Senators” exclamation.
Both Cruz and Rubio came in with different strategies from previous debates, apparently hoping to fill the vacuum left by Trump. Cruz seemed to be looking to pick a fight with the moderators early, but got shut down by Chris Wallace rather firmly. Cruz also tried joking about walking off the stage if the moderators kept asking “mean questions,” but the audience didn’t get the joke, and Rubio followed up by saying he would stick around no matter what questions got asked. It looked like Cruz tried a little too hard to mock Trump and ended up with a bit of egg on his face — but only for a moment.
Rubio came in looking to dominate by asserting himself more often, sticking to national security as much as possible, and pushing back hard on any criticism that came his way. For the most part that worked, although he and Cruz ended up getting tangled in previous statements on immigration aired by the moderators during the debate. Both took fire from others on stage during the exchanges — Rubio from Jeb Bush, Cruz from Rand Paul — that briefly set them back, but both rebounded well.
As the Luntz group also concluded, I felt Rubio did the most good for himself in the debate, but I also think Cruz did better than the Luntz group concluded. Will this change the direction of the race in Iowa? It could shuffle the order of the likely top-three finishers in Monday’s caucuses — Trump, Cruz, and Rubio — but those will be the medal winners in any case.
Rubio also got the answer of the night in this 75-second clip. Washington Post reporter Aaron Blake quipped that “there was so much red meat, Ruth’s Chris Steakhouse would be jealous.” The only people who didn’t love this were Bernie Sanders, Hillary Clinton, and the Swedes: