After another night of debates which ran far too late, hopefully you all managed to make it to bed without jabbing a fork into your eyes. All in all the presentation was “okay” in terms of CNN handling this one. (If I had to assign a grade to them it would have been a B- or a C+.) I found Wolf Blitzer to be far more combative with the candidates than Jake Tapper and more of a pot stirring ringmaster. Hugh Hewitt did well again for the brief amount of time he got and there wasn’t anything terribly objectionable about Dana Bash’s questions.
I didn’t have too much to say last night about the undercard debate aside from wondering why we were still having it at this stage of things. Much like previous outings, Lindsey Graham was the only one who really stood out. I had to agree with a few of the folks on Twitter who I saw asking why we couldn’t just move Graham to the main stage and uninvite the other three. Say what you will about Graham’s disappointing work in the Senate, when he starts talking foreign policy he lights a room on fire, and while he may not be in serious contention for the nomination he would have called out some of the main stage contenders and ratcheted up the conversation regarding the war on terrorism.
The main debate was at least lively and produced more than a few memorable moments. Right off the bat, Wolf went after Trump on the Muslim immigration pause and, perhaps for the first time, Trump gave an answer which defined what he’s been bringing to the national debate on this and other subjects. “We’ve opened up a very big discussion that needed to be opened up.”
The stage seemed to break down into several individual battles. I was expecting to see a clash between the frontrunners… Trump vs Cruz, but that really didn’t happen to a great extent. Trump was battling with Jeb Bush more than anyone else and Bush definitely got the worst of it. To his credit, Bush tried to come out strong (and not look low energy) by calling Trump a “chaos candidate” and saying he was “unhinged.” Trump’s retort set the tone for most of the evening, brushing Bush off like an obnoxious fly.
“Jeb doesn’t really believe I’m unhinged. He said that very simply because he has failed in this campaign,” he responded. “It’s been a total disaster. Nobody cares.”
Trump also got hit on his proposal to fight the terrorists on the internet and attempt to cut off their access. He explained it much better than he had previously managed during interviews, but for some reason a portion of the crowd started booing him for it. And yet, in another example of how much better he’s gotten at these shows, he handled the crowd response pretty well without getting abusive.
“I just can’t imagine somebody booing,” he said taken aback. “These are people that want to kill us, folks. And you’re objecting to us infiltrating their conversations? I don’t think so.”
Cruz wound up being in a battle with Marco Rubio far more than Trump. That was a fascinating exchange and I think the voters benefited from it. Rubio did a surprisingly good job of being aggressive without looking whiny or losing his temper, but Ted Cruz simply seemed to have too much ammunition against him. Their debate kept revolving back to amnesty and the crowd was eating it up, with Rubio spending most of his time trying to explain away his previous immigration plans. When he attempted to claim that Cruz was vulnerable on the same issue the Texas senator shot back with arguably his best moment of the event.
“For Marco to suggest our record is the same is like suggesting that the fireman and the arsonist have the same plan because they were at the same fire,” Cruz said, stressing he has the more conservative immigration plan.
One of the bigger surprises for me was Chris Christie, who seemed well prepared and steady. He had several impressive answers on foreign policy and spent more time going after Rubio and Cruz than he did Trump. Unfortunately, none of those moments seemed like they were going to deliver a breakout in the race, so I’m not sure if he’ll benefit from it.
Rand Paul probably came off the worst of all of them on the policy front, with his quasi-isolationist take on handling ISIS being very poorly received. But the real loser of the night was Ben Carson on my score card. Several of his answers were meandering and off topic, falling back too quickly on his personal biography to answer questions of how he would deal with terrorism. At one point Wolf offered him a second question following one contentious exchange and he actually said he didn’t want to answer and cut off his own time. I was flabbergasted by that point. With nine people on the stage all vying for face time, how do you pass on any question? Even if you didn’t like the question you at least use it as a springboard to launch into something you do want to talk about.
I’m sad to say that Carly Fiorina probably isn’t going to see any sort of a third wind out of this show. She was largely in the background and, much like Carson, she fell back too quickly on why being a woman, battling cancer and raising a family made her qualified to defeat ISIS. As much as I’ve admired her candidacy to date, I began tuning out at that point. Wrapping up the field, John Kasich barely seemed to be there.
It’s always hard to pick a “winner” for something as subjective as a debate and I don’t think we had a clear one last night. In terms of doing what he needed to do, Trump came out of the event without taking any damage and stuck to his guns. He projected strength, toughness and confidence, which he really needed to do. Cruz accounted himself well, though I thought he could have been a little more aggressive. Christie gets high marks, though it’s probably too little and far too late as I mentioned above. I suppose I’d also give Rubio a passing grade for delivery but the substance of his arguments won’t be popular with conservatives. Really, in terms of the lead dogs in the field, I don’t see where anything was significantly shaken up. The people who did the most poorly are already near the bottom of the stack in the polling. We’ll have to give it until at least the weekend before we see any solid numbers in the wake of the debate, but I’d predict that not much will change.