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Eye On Candidates
January 29, 2016

Bush, Rubio Turn in Top Debate Performances

Last night’s GOP debate featured seven candidates on the main stage and one noticeable absence. While partisans of each candidate are ready to explain why their man won, there seems to be a consensus that former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush did the best; Florida Sen. Marco Rubio did very well too; Texas Sen. Ted Cruz had a rough night but did OK; New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie and Kentucky Sen. Rand Paul made the most of their opportunity and likely helped their causes; and both retired neurosurgeon Ben Carson and Ohio Gov. John Kasich didn’t do particularly well.

There doesn’t seem to be a clear sense of whether businessman Donald Trump helped or hurt himself by skipping the debate.

For Bush, the strong debate performance was recognized by nearly every neutral observer. Here’s how Mark Halperin in Bloomberg View summed up Bush’s grade (a B+):

Trumpless: The Billionaire's Seven Rivals, Liberated, Debate in Iowa

Showed off fresh agility and energy, and an increasingly unbound natural gravitas. Surfed crowd support to improved tone and pacing. Embraced his Bush pedigree with aplomb and flaunted his foreign policy fluency. Took on the absent Trump, as is his norm, more than anyone else on the stage. Battled ably with Rubio on immigration. At his best moments, was the Jeb Bush all those donors expected to see a year ago. A strong debate, but the clock is running down fast.

Over in Politico, Glenn Thrush had this to say regarding Bush’s performance:

Jeb, unleashed. The knock on Jeb Bush in earlier debates was that he lacked the rhetorical zip and testosterone to go one-on-one with Trump. In the frontrunner's absence, he seemed more confident and more competently combative, training many of his blows at Rubio.

In one memorable exchange, Bush accused Rubio of choosing to "cut and run" from his commitment to pass comprehensive immigration reform in the Senate - in order to avoid the conservative backlash against supporting path to citizenship for undocumented immigrants….

But he saved the most lacerating line for himself - acknowledging that his own support for a citizenship pathway is a no-sale in a GOP increasingly tilting toward the hard-line Trump position -- which includes building a massive border wall to keep out foreigners. "I wrote a book about this called Immigration Wars," he said. "You can get it at $2.99 on Amazon. It's not a bestseller. I can promise you."

In The Hill, Bush is called one of the three winners:

Bush supporters must rue the fact that it’s taken him so long to deliver on the debate stage. The former Florida governor has been on an upswing since his stumbling early showings, and he was more vigorous and relaxed than ever before on Thursday evening…. 

Bush is so far behind in polls that his fate may be sealed. But it was a good night for him nonetheless. 

A common theme running through much of the commentary on Bush’s performance, however, is the idea that his newfound debate skills may be too little, too late.

The other candidate who seems to have impressed the most was Rubio, as this write-up in National Journal explains while also suggesting a strong showing in the Iowa caucuses is vital to his campaign’s chances:

In the final GOP debate before Iowa voters cast their ballots, Rubio proved that he’s a consensus candidate in a splintered party whose leaders are desperately looking for any kind of unity.

Whether his polished performance is enough to propel him into second place is unclear….

Indeed, Rubio has a lot more on the line in Iowa than his campaign wants to acknowledge. His staff is trying to tamp down expectations, all but ruling out the possibility of a second-place finish. The reality is that a strong showing in Iowa—20 percent or more of the caucus vote—would provide Rubio with the critical momentum to break away from the establishment pack that is now bunched together in New Hampshire.  A disappointing result will only underscore that he’s a candidate that looks good on paper, with potential that wasn’t realized.

Rubio’s debate performance went a long way toward making the first option more likely. He’s been gaining ground in Iowa with a more optimistic message emphasizing his electability. Despite being hammered with millions of dollars worth of negative attacks, his favorability ratings are still the strongest in the field. He came into the Iowa debate needing a strong closing argument. It wasn’t a flawless performance, but it’s probably enough for him to finish with a flourish.

National Journal’s Halperin gave Rubio a B+ as well, explaining his grade this way:

Confident and, yes, charming, occupying a groove that allowed him to bring segments of his clever stump speech to a wide TV audience—both the appealing conversational elements and the more rigid talking points. Smoothly wove recent news developments and mentions of his faith into his presentation. Used the phrase “when I am president” repeatedly, presumably to get viewers conditioned to the prospect. Once again was asked to address his history on immigration policy and deliberately and effectively kept the waters muddy. Maintained the aura of his recent momentum, but failed to use Trump’s absence to fully dominate.

Cruz was also given a B+ by Halperin:

Without his chief opponent by his side, presented a workmanlike effort to appear presidential. Less combative and pointed, but took his usual swipe at the moderators. His pre-packaged attempts to make humorous jabs at the absent Trump fell mostly flat. Punched back at Marco Rubio when hit on immigration, making a crack about his rival’s “charming” style. Effortlessly swatted away a query about being unpopular with his Senate colleagues. The nature of the questions hurled his way put him a bit more off message than usual and seemed to ruffle him at times, but he didn’t sustain perilous damage. Neither helped himself accelerate in Iowa nor fully closed the sale.

In the Politico Caucus, a survey of political insiders in the early states of Iowa, New Hampshire, South Carolina, and Nevada, many thought it was a rough night for Cruz, although some also thought he was a winner of the debate:

In the final debate before Iowa's first-in-the-nation caucuses, Ted Cruz had the worst night of the seven GOP presidential candidates on stage Thursday…

More than 4-in-10 GOP insiders – given the choice of the seven GOP candidates on the stage, plus Trump – rated Cruz as the loser of Thursday night’s debate, citing his defensive posture on his past immigration stances and opposition to ethanol subsidies….

Cruz ranked third on the winners list – but even some of those who picked him inserted a caveat.

“He did not lose [and] that is a win,” a Nevada Republican said, “but the ethanol question may have hurt him.”

And in the assessment of The Hill, Cruz had a “mixed” evaluation:

Cruz suffered no catastrophe but the debate was a missed opportunity for him….  

There is no reason to believe Cruz did anything to cause his chances to truly crater. But he is now almost 7 points behind Trump in the RealClearPolitics (RCP) polling average in Iowa.  

He will need to depend on his ground game to overcome that deficit because his performance on Thursday evening didn’t do the job. 

Paul, like Bush, is another candidate who many thought did well, but it may be too late in the process for him to gain much from it. Here’s how The Washington Post’s Chris Cillizza described his performance, which he listed first on the “winners” list:

Maybe the Kentucky Senator just needed to take a debate off. After not making the main stage in the 6th debate (and refusing to appear in the undercard debate), Paul was a major player in this one. He showed off his trademark willingness to needle the other candidates -- he went after Marco Rubio and Ted Cruz at various points -- but also offered nuanced thoughts on racial profiling and abortion. This was the Paul who many political observers -- myself included -- thought we might see in this campaign: A candidate willing and able to speak to issues his party has struggled to address in recent years.  Too little, too late. But, at least he had a moment.

While Paul wound up on a lot of winner or “mixed” lists, Christie was on the other end of that spectrum, falling in the middle but with a more negative outlook. Cillizza included him as one of the debate’s losers:

The New Jersey governor felt a little like a Johnny One-Note tonight.  For every question he was asked, the answer was how terrible Hillary Clinton is, was and will be. Ok, I get that bashing Clinton is never a bad idea in a Republican primary but the strategy made Christie look very two dimensional and brought to my mind memories of Rudy Giuliani's campaign in 2008. And not in a good way.

The Hill was more charitable, lumping him in with the “mixed” performances:

Christie is a strong debater, and he showed that once again.  

His basic strategy is now familiar — he highlights his experience as a governor and contrasts that with rivals who are members of Congress, whom he disparages as mere talkers. He also asserts his strength as a general election candidate. 

There is nothing wrong with that strategy and Christie executes it proficiently every time. The problem, however, is that its familiarity robs it of some of its power. There is also very little evidence that the New Jersey governor has catapulted himself into contention, even in New Hampshire, the state on which all his hopes depend. 

Still, his tendency to talk directly to voters rather than getting involved in what he disdainfully termed “parliamentary tricks” is a real strength.

At the bottom of nearly everybody’s reviews were Carson and Kasich. Here is Halperin’s take on Carson, whom he gave a C:

Still hasn’t found a way to turn his low-key style into breakthrough moments. Nearly invisible—neither attacked nor attacker, and not of great interest to the moderators.

Kasich likewise failed to impress most observers, as The Hill demonstrates:

Kasich’s ambitions are pinned on the idea that he can perform strongly in New Hampshire which votes on Feb. 9, and where he has been rising in the polls and is now in third place. 

He struggled to really make his presence felt at the debate, however, and some of his assertions — such as that there is “a Kasich lane” in this year’s GOP primary — came across as forced. He also appeared to suggest that the subject of encryption of communications is so inherently sensitive that it can barely be discussed in public.  

Kasich’s supporters insist he is one of the most substantive contenders, but he also tends to offer up too many head-scratching moments on the debate stage. 

Regarding Trump, the views are mixed as to whether he “won” by skipping the debate, or lost. An article at Bloomberg Politics captured much of the mixed sentiment:

Even in absentia, Donald Trump dominated last night's Republican presidential debate in Iowa.

While his rivals discussed Islamic terrorism and immigration, the split-screen evening had Trump stealing the spotlight by refusing to attend and instead holding a competing rally nearby. That event took on the appearance of a political variety show as the former reality television star shared his stage with the last two winners of the state’s Republican presidential caucuses, plus a Green Beret who shares a name with the legendary actor and Iowa native John Wayne….

Several observers... [saw] yet another political masterstroke for the real estate mogul that once again showed his media prowess.

“The event tonight shows he's winning,” said Steve Bannon, executive chairman of Breitbart News. “Trump's event tonight was like a Fellini movie—veterans, entrepreneurs, capitalists, Diamond and Silk, and concerned citizens. It was a pure slice of Americana.”…

Erick Erickson, a conservative blogger who contributed to National Review's anti-Trump issue, said most Iowa Republicans probably watch Fox News, which broadcast the debate, instead of the other networks that carried Trump's rally.

“I don't know that he does himself any favors with Iowa voters who treat this almost like a religion, and expect you to go through the motions,” Erickson said. “This is the only debate in Iowa, and he decided to skip it.”

With only four days until the Iowa caucuses, this debate could prove crucial to the hopes of the seven who made the main stage and the one who skipped it. Previous debates had time for any temporary surges or falls that resulted to fade before people start actually voting, while any short-term benefit from last night’s event could easily last into next Monday night, adding a few percentage points to some candidates’ vote totals while subtracting a few points from others. With a tight race between Cruz and Trump at the top and a mix of candidates vying for third, fourth, and possibly fifth and sixth place finishes or even lower, a few points one way or the other could be the difference between a Tuesday morning withdrawal from the race or moving on to the New Hampshire primary the following week.