Former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush may not have “won” the GOP debate last night (most are giving that victory to Florida Sen. Marco Rubio), but the consensus view seems to be that he turned in a good performance and was significantly improved from the first three debates. Bush came in tied for second, according to Politico’s survey of insiders:
The runner-ups for best performance, according to the survey, were Jeb Bush and Carly Fiorina with 12 percent each, followed by Rand Paul with 8 percent and Ted Cruz and Ben Carson at 6 percent, according to Republican insiders.
“Jeb was most in need of a strong performance, and he was much improved,” a New Hampshire Republican said. “At a minimum, he has bought himself more time to reset and start advancing.”
In his debate review, Mark Halperin of Bloomberg Politics gives Bush a B (every candidate received a B+, B, or B-, suggesting not all that much separated the candidates last night in terms of performance). Here’s his writeup of Bush:
Showed a mighty rebound from his last debate performance. Despite an awkward early effort to demand his share of speaking time when Governor John Kasich tried to claim the mic, he soon displayed his trademark policy mastery. Consistently executed his plan to fire on former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and President Barack Obama rather than on his GOP rivals. Struck a chord with economic conservatives by hitting the president on regulations. Showed his true heart by defending his immigration stand on moral and political grounds, earning a warm crowd reaction. Had a few minor stumbles—he lost a back-and-forth when Donald Trump condescended to him. But overall, as smoothly articulate as he has been in any high-profile event this year (although he still relies on sarcasm as his humor delivery system). His aides and supporters will breathe a massive sigh of relief for a comeback he simply had to deliver.
Not everyone was impressed with Bush’s performance, however. Writing in The Washington Post, Chris Cillizza lumps him in with the “losers”:
Look, the former Florida governor wasn't bad in this debate. In fact, he was far better than the lifeless showing he put in last month. But he wasn't good enough. Jeb's first answer — pledging to repeal all of Obama's executive orders — was forceful and quite good. But as the debate wore on, Bush repeatedly missed chances to jump into conversations — a long back-and-forth involving multiple candidates over taxes jumps to mind — and when he did speak he was somewhat halting and awkward. The Bush people readily acknowledge that debating is not his strong suit. And I readily acknowledge that being a good debater doesn't guarantee victory. But Bush just isn't comfortable on the debate stage — and it shows.
While Bush may have turned in the most improved performance, Rubio seems to have done best. Here are Cillizza’s thoughts, which mirror those of just about everyone else:
Rubio's line about welders making more money than philosophy majors will be quoted all over the place in the post-debate analysis. (And, no, it wasn't totally accurate.) Rubio knocked it out of the park when debating military spending and the right role for America in the world with Rand Paul. He got a meatball of a question when asked by the moderators about Hillary Clinton's résumé as compared with his own; he, unsurprisingly, answered it well and easily. Time and time again, he oozed knowledge while appearing entirely relaxed. One nit to pick with Rubio: He can — and did at times Tuesday night — come across as slightly too rehearsed, the student reciting things back to the teacher from memory but without actually understanding what any of it means.
The conservative senator from Texas was surprisingly underwhelming during the first pair of Republican debates. But his stellar performance last month in Colorado carried over to Milwaukee, where he once again looked like the accomplished debater he was in college.
Nobody in the Republican field is better at finding ways to serve red meat to the conservative base than Cruz. On a question about immigration, Cruz reiterated his hard-line opposition to President Obama’s reform plan while simultaneously bashing the media.
The consequences of illegal immigration, he said, would be viewed much differently “if a bunch of lawyers or bankers were crossing the Rio Grande. Or if a bunch of people with journalism degrees were coming over and driving down the wages in the press. Then, we would see stories about the economic calamity that is befalling our nation.”
Cruz’s path to the nomination runs directly through the party’s most conservative voters. In Milwaukee, he yet again made inroads with them.
He and Rubio were the only two candidates to receive a B+ in Halperin’s grades.
There was only one candidate that seemed to consistently appear on most analysts’ “losers” list, and that was Ohio Gov. John Kasich. The Hill was among many media outlets that didn’t seem overly impressed with Kasich’s performance:
Kasich needed a big night and he got one — but in all the wrong ways. Kasich tried to mix it up with several candidates and almost always emerged the loser. Early on, Trump swatted his attacks aside. Much later, he tangled with Cruz on the wisdom of bailing out troubled banks. At one point during that exchange, Kasich appeared to suggest he could decide who should lose their deposits during a bank failure in a financial crisis. Such moments undercut Kasich’s central claim as a pragmatic executive. It was a very bad night for Kasich, and deeper questions are now likely to be asked about the viability of his candidacy.
Joining in the piling-on of Kasich was National Journal:
Like Scott Walker and Jeb Bush before him, it’s not a good sign when a candidate complains about a lack of questions and airtime. And Ohio Gov. John Kasich did just that, according to a report from Politico, complaining to debate moderators during a commercial break that they weren’t giving him enough of a chance.
Perhaps it would have been better if they hadn’t. When Kasich spoke, he rambled as if he was worried he wouldn’t get another chance to talk. Some of the policy points he did make seemed to compliment the Obama administration, like his praise for the White House’s deployment of a Navy vessel in the South China Sea.
Worst of all, during a pointed exchange with Cruz, he seemed to support a partial bailout of big banks poised to fail. Few issues will provoke as much ire within the Republican base. With Chris Christie’s success during the undercard debate, Kasich might soon find he has competition for the moderate Republican vote in his must-win state of New Hampshire.
National Journal wasn’t overly impressed with businessman Donald Trump either:
The media’s predictions of the billionaire’s political future have proven wrong time and time again. But even with that in mind, it’s hard to think the man who still tops some national polls did much to help himself. If nothing else, Trump increasingly feels more like a sideshow than a main attraction during these debates, with Rubio, Carson, and Cruz sucking up more and more airtime.
Even Rand Paul, a frequent subject of Trump’s tirades in the past, scored on Trump after he finished a long rant about China and the recently signed Trans-Pacific Partnership trade agreement. China, the senator from Kentucky pointed out, wasn’t part of the deal.
Trump hasn’t faded much in the polls so far, and he’s unlikely to suffer a swift descent anytime soon. But as the debate proved, increasingly, the Republican race isn’t about him anymore.
The reviews weren’t consistently negative for Trump, but nobody seems to think he won either. The Hill offered this observation after lumping him in the “mixed” category:
This was the mogul’s weakest performance in any of the four debates. No single disaster befell him, but he had a couple of bad moments. One came when he complained about Fiorina interrupting other candidates, in the process reminding people of a previous uproar over his comments about her appearance. The other came when, asked about the threat from Russia, he delivered an answer that was conspicuously lacking in detail. Still, Trump remains far ahead in the polls, alongside Carson, despite endless predictions of his imminent demise. Don’t be surprised if his poll ratings prove durable one more time.
The other three candidates generally drew positive reviews, although few thought any of them stood out. Here was the summary offered by Cillizza at The Washington Post, who categorized them all as “winners”:
Ben Carson: In the first three debates, I watched in wonder as Carson's numbers kept moving up after what I perceived to be nearly nonexistent performances. But Carson — from his first answer on Tuesday night — was more energetic (that's a pretty low bar given Carson's past performances) and more dialed in than I had seen him. He was helped by a moderator question on his past exaggerations/inaccuracies regarding his life story that would give the term "softball" a bad name. And by the fact that none of his rivals seemed interested in taking the fight to him on the issue of the inconsistencies of his recounting of the past. Carson was, as usual, very shaky on foreign policy and wasn't much better on regulatory reform. But he did more than enough to keep himself at or near the top of the GOP field.
Carly Fiorina: Like Cruz and Rubio, Fiorina proved something Tuesday night that we already knew: She's an able debater. She inserted herself into a variety of discussions — foreign policy, taxes — where she left a positive mark. It also helped that the audience in the room in Milwaukee seemed very much on her side. I still think Fiorina, like Rubio, can come across as too rote at times.
Rand Paul: The senator from Kentucky (finally) found ways to get his voice heard in a debate. The problem for him is that he's almost certainly too far down in polling — and in the money chase — for it to matter much. Still, Paul found a platform to voice his unique views on foreign and fiscal policy, and, at this stage of his candidacy, that amounts to a win.
Finally, from the undercard, it appears that New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie did indeed deliver the best performance, getting called one of the evening’s “winners” by The Hill:
After Fox Business decided that only eight contenders would be present on the main stage Tuesday, Christie found himself confined to the undercard debate. If that hurt his pride, it didn’t show. The New Jersey governor was clearly the best performer of the four candidates in the earlier clash, the others being Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal, former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee and former Sen. Rick Santorum (Pa.). In particular, Christie turned Jindal’s attacks on his conservative credentials to his advantage, positioning himself as a would-be uniter of the party and Jindal as a petty divider.
There is a consistent theme across nearly all of the reviews: While some debate performances were better than others, and some candidates helped themselves while others probably hurt themselves, the distance from top to bottom was fairly modest – nobody truly dominated and nobody truly collapsed. It will likely be another week or so before we see whether this debate had any impact on the race.