Let’s get right to it.
Moderators: The questions were a bit scatter-brained. We did foreign policy, and then we asked other questions, and then without any transition, we went back to foreign policy several times. I’m not sure whether this was sloppy or intentionally done to throw candidates off balance. Also, they were a bit clumsy at getting the candidates on stage in order, which I’ve never witnessed before. Sheesh. The moderators actually deserve to be broken out this go-around and discussed individually.
MKH: Pitch perfect. Excellent. Flawless. I don’t just say that because we’re both Georgia Bulldogs. I wish she had moderated the whole thing. Her questions were pointed, but not gotcha questions.
David Muir: He almost never interrupted the candidates, but did try for follow ups when they refused to answer his questions. I’d only knock Muir for repeatedly letting people chime in just because they wanted to talk.
Josh McElveen: Not bad. His questions were a bit wordy, but again, he never interjected himself into the debate.
Martha Raddatz: Good. Dear. Lord. Raddatz injected herself into the debate repeatedly, interrupted candidates attempting to answer her questions, and very clearly had it out for Ted Cruz last night. She’s not suitable for this format, mistaking it often for a press conference or interview.
Bush: Easily Bush’s best night. If he’d been this solid all along, he wouldn’t be running on fumes. His pursuit of Mr. Trump on eminent domain was outstanding.
Carson: I’m over the whining. I’m over the vague, rambling answers. Go away, Dr. Carson. You will not whine your way into the Oval Office. I should do an entire entry on how unseemly it is when grown men whine.
Christie: People will say Christie drew blood on Rubio for his comments about how Rubio has the same canned speech. Here’s the thing, though. Christie has done the exact same thing this entire campaign. He’s a federal prosecutor. He’s governor of New Jersey. Senators talk a lot while governors get things done. The audience in the room ate up the confrontation, and first time viewers may have enjoyed it, too. I can’t imagine anyone paying attention for a while found Christie more than a hypocrite here. Also, he’s trying to prove his pro-life bona fides, but the language he uses sounds unnatural to him; his defense of exceptions for rape and incest was clumsy at best.
Aside:For what it’s worth, there are complicated ethical arguments for those exceptions, but they don’t play well in debate format, and they rely on dehumanizing the unborn child or sentimentalizing the issue. I personally find the arguments distasteful, but it would not hurt my feelings if those exceptions were the only exceptions. That moves the ball pretty decidedly into the anti-abortion side. I’ll take it.
Cruz: A lot of people will knock Cruz for the first fifteen minutes of the debate, but he made the right tactical decision to deflect and deflate the issues as soon as possible. That became clear as the debate went on. He had strong answers on every question otherwise, and he didn’t need to be the center of attention last night. Rubio and Trump’s bad moments ought to be the focus, not Cruz’s deflation. Cruz paused briefly on his answer for water-boarding, but I don’t see that as a bad thing. That question deserves a moment to search for the right response, and he handled it well.
Kasich: The audience loved Kasich, and he reminded them repeatedly that he’s been kissing their rings for a long time. Again, Kasich has a strong record, but whoever is coaching him is doing a complete disservice to him. He comes across as smarmy, angry, or rambling and crazy, which is a shame.
Rubio: I’ve been saying for a while now that I didn’t really understand Rubio’s appeal in these debates. Christie drew blood, but it was a largely Pyrrhic victory to me. The audience booed Rubio during the exchange and began to murmur whenever Rubio went back to campaign stump mode. He needs to be hammered on that point early and often because he needs to improve here. His answers in the second half were stronger for the most part, but he still doubled down on his attack on Obama that he repeated three times while Christie attacked him.
Trump: Trump gives the same sort of vague non-answers. “How will you do X, Mr. Trump?” “Well, we’re going to do it.” No one calls him on it, and I’m not sure why. His supporters eat it up. He does well enough with his platitudes on police officers and on veterans, but again, offers little of substance on the issue. Bush shredded him on eminent domain, and the audience booed him. Trump’s strategy? Attack the audience. He was also booed loudly for his closing statement.
Conclusion: I think Cruz won on points tonight, but the big moments under discussion will be Christie vs Rubio and, possibly, Bush’s shredding Trump on eminent domain and the audience’s repeated booing of Trump.
Primary Prediction: After tonight, I’m still going to predict some combination of Trump, Rubio, and Cruz for the top three spots. Christie may have made Rubio’s job a bit harder, but I don’t think he helped himself.