GOP debate winners and losers -- the envelope please...

Tonight’s CNN/Salem Media Group debate might be one of the last in this cycle, and it turned out to be one of the best of this cycle. Unlike the most recent debates, the personal attacks were entirely absent — but the policy debate was substantive and vital. The candidates, the moderator, and the panelists managed to make everyone look better. But who won, and who didn’t? In order of significance …

The Republican Party – For the first time in a while, serious policy debate became the focus of a prime-time GOP event. Gone were the references to genitalia and stature. Instead, this debate gave candidates a forum that made all four of them look, well … presidential. The party has to be pleased with this performance, especially as the race heads into the winner-take-all stage of contests. Winner.

CNN et al For most debates, the first segment gets used to pit candidates against each other in personal terms. Jake Tapper instead avoided posing questions in the first segment in ways that pushed the candidates to attack each other, and the result was a surprisingly substantive debate. My friend Hugh Hewitt led the panel in asking tough questions and hanging in tenaciously to get specific answers. This was the best debate in a long time, and perhaps the best of the cycle — in large part because of the smaller number of candidates on stage, of course. Winner.

Marco Rubio – He needed to hit a home run in his home state, and he did so by dumping the personal attacks and adopting a more personal approach. He mixed in anecdotes, including a touching one about a supporter who keeps heading out to campaign for him even though he’s recovering from surgery, and combined that with a fierce condemnation of Barack Obama’s Cuba policy and an incisive grip on policy details. Winner.

Ted Cruz – At times excellent, Cruz made a couple of missteps toward the end. He pitched his anti-Trump unity message on a question about a contested convention and had the audience chant back, “Marco! Marco!” At times, he seemed hesitant, pausing for too long to gather his thoughts, and at others oddly passive. However, Cruz also hit Trump hard on policy and on his track record of supporting Democrats, and delivered a fine oration on opposing Washington. Winner.

Donald Trump – The upside for Trump: He looked and acted much more presidential, dispensing with the broad caricatures and personal insults. He promised over the last week to start giving a more presidential approach, and tonight it looked as though he meant it. The downside: After a good opening segment dealing with trade and immigration in which he sounded well versed, Trump quickly lapsed back into substance-free slogan-chanting. He talked about “deals” in almost every answer, it seemed, and some of his answers appeared to have little to do with the questions being asked. Will it hurt him in the upcoming contests? Naaah, but it won’t give fence-sitters any reason to gravitate toward him, either. Mixed.

John Kasich – Kasich stood out in the last debate because he didn’t take part in the personal-insult circus. In this debate, with everyone focusing on substance, Kasich didn’t stand out at all. He made a couple of impassioned arguments about his long experience in Washington, which is a death knell in this cycle. Without the nonsense on stage, his no-nonsense approach faded into the background. Mixed.

What was your take?

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