That was absolutely brutal. Seriously, what a bloodbath. I’m glad I was out at a concert having fun and recorded the debate to watch this morning, because I might’ve cried myself to sleep after those two and a half hours of dourness, had I watched it live.
Here are some quick takes on each of the candidates, followed by some other takeaways.
The Candidates (ranked in approximate order of how well they performed)
- Ted Cruz – Following his widely-criticized performance in the final Iowa debate, this was a return to form for Cruz. A transparently bright man and skilled debater, Cruz’s main focus in these debate formats should be coming across as likable. He accomplished that in New Hampshire. His handled the Carsongate non-issue adroitly, and his direct apology on national television should foreclose the story. He sounded firmly in control when talking about foreign policy, and had a genuinely moving answer on the heroin addiction question that probably resonated strongly with all those who heard it. Cruz may not win New Hampshire, but he only helped himself last night.
- Jeb Bush – I have no love for Jeb Bush’s candidacy, but he was exceptional last night. He was unusually confident, actually looked like he wanted to run for President, and absolutely obliterated Donald Trump on the eminent domain exchange. If Jeb Bush had appeared at that initial Fox News debate back in August like he did in these past two debates, the Republican race might have taken an entirely different trajectory than it did. Jeb will have to deal with the reality of how utterly sad his campaign has heretofore been, but he also only helped himself last night.
- John Kasich – Like many here at RedState, I think John Kasich is frankly an entirely sanctimonious jerk. And I literally burst out laughing when the debate moderators turned the conversation to the state of conservatism and then directed the question to the very guy who once said Jesus compelled him to expand Obamacare. But Kasich moralized much less last night, whined much less, and generally portrayed himself as a competent executive. For New Hampshire’s more moderate electorate, this will probably play well, as long as he can hide his amnesty squishiness in a pretty hawkishly pro-border security state.
- Chris Christie – I’ve actually always thought Christie is solid in these debate formats, given his gruff mien and penchant for no-holds-barred gladiatorial fisticuffs. He brutally savaged Marco Rubio in their initial exchange (more on that below), and voters may well ultimately remember this debate singularly as the one in which Christie blunted #MarcoMentum. That will play well for him, moving forward, notwithstanding how angry he comes across at times. Christie’s use of the term, “self-defense,” with respect to his preference for certain pro-life exceptions was rather odd, to say the least, but I suspect most people will neither remember nor care.
- Donald Trump – He got obliterated on eminent domain, which was bound to happen since he is seeking the presidential nomination in a conservative political party still largely dedicated to Lockean ideals about private property sanctity. And he also got thoroughly booed at times, which was pretty great for those of us in the “Trump poses an existential threat to conservatism” camp. He was generally less defensive or combative when addressing the other candidates, though, and I suspect his riposte to Rubio on the mini-debate over whether Obama is an evil genius or simply grossly incompetent—Rubio said the former, and Trump said the latter—will resonate more with the party base. Overall, I suspect Trump did very little to either help or hurt himself.
- Ben Carson – His entrance in walking (or not) onto the stage was one of the more awkward things I can ever recall in a political debate. He made his usual jokes about not getting enough moderator attention, but seemed more endearing this time. He didn’t fall asleep, and looked at his feet less often. I don’t claim to fully understand what goes through the mind of a Republican voter who would give Dr. Carson control over our nuclear arsenal, but I doubt he did much to win over new supporters.
- Marco Rubio – The big story of this debate is obviously how badly Marco Rubio got destroyed by Chris Christie. I have been privately telling friends for months now how, despite his moving rhetoric and skilled oration, Rubio is essentially still a one-trick pony who always tries to segue all questions to his carefully rehearsed three or four main talking points (“new American century,” “restore American leadership,” “son of a bartender,” etc.). Christie’s unveiling of that for everyone to see was almost painful to watch, and it happened very early on in the evening, while everyone was still watching. It is impossible to predict just how much this will hurt Rubio, but I would be very concerned right now about the blunting of #MarcoMentum if I were in the Rubio camp. Rubio had an outstanding answer later in the evening on the right-to-life issue, as he is wont to do, but the damage was done.
- Martha Raddatz served the role of your typical Republican-bashing moderator, and shame on the RNC for continuing to inadequately vet the people who manage its debates. It was wonderful to see Mary Katherine Ham ask questions, though I wish she had been employed more.
- During the debate, ABC presented Facebook data showing the issues that were most often being discussed by viewers, in real-time. Immigration was the number one most-discussed issue, which lends credence to those of us who firmly believe the GOP must learn from the Trump phenomenon by not nominating someone with so much baggage on the issue—and whose nomination would entirely foreclose using the issue as a “sword” and not just as a “shield” against whichever open-borders socialist the Democrats nominate.
- With #MarcoMentum blunted, the main issue for the field is that any votes Rubio hemorrhages will likely be pretty broadly dispersed. I predict Cruz and Bush may benefit more than the others, based both on the polling cross-tabs about Rubio supporters’ second choices (Cruz usually wins, here) and on performance last night, but it is impossible to tell.
- Give credit where credit is due: the RedState community is definitely more Cruz/Rubio-style than Bush/Christie/Kasich-style, but the governors all did well last night, despite the fact that it is very difficult to see how more than one can consider himself viable past Tuesday.