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Eye On Candidates
December 16, 2015

Bush the Biggest Winner of Debate

In typical post-debate coverage and analysis, most observers offer multiple “winners” and “losers” based on a variety of factors. Some of last night’s declared “winners” are no stranger to the label.

However, former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush, who was criticized for lackluster performances in previous debates, is being widely praised for his showing last night. From National Journal:

Winners and Losers in the Las Vegas GOP Presidential Debate

Bush finally seemed to find his voice Tuesday night. But was it too little, too late?

After struggling to assert himself in the first four debates, the former Florida governor came across as much more confident and polished in Las Vegas. Bush trained most of his fire on Trump, and even though he didn’t take the poll-leader down, he certainly scored points by repeatedly asserting that Trump is not a serious candidate.

Bush delivered one of the most memorable lines of the night, when he told Trump: “You can’t insult your way to the presidency.” The remark not only drew huge applause from the Las Vegas audience, but according to data provided by Facebook, it was the top social moment of the debate. How much, if at all, this performance helps Bush rise out of the single digits in polls remains to be seen, but in the short term it should help ease the minds of some nervous donors.

Mark Halperin at Bloomberg Politics gave Bush a B+, the highest grade he gave to any of the candidates after last night’s debate (three others also received a B+):

Executed his decision to define his evening with a sustained effort to take down Trump. Early on scored an effective moment by deeming his rival a “chaos” candidate, later impugned Trump’s past statements about national security, and intrepidly mocked Trump throughout. Didn’t back down when the billionaire insulted him in return, surely winning points from his own supporters and maybe some new anti-Trump adherents as well. Perhaps even got under Trump’s skin once or twice. When he wasn’t hitting the front-runner, brought his “A” game talking about national security. If the establishment eventually decides it must select a contestant from the current crop who is willing to take on Trump without flinching, Jeb might find his path to a comeback.

The Hill also offered a laudatory view, although qualified it by noting that it may not matter much for a candidate trailing the frontrunners:

Bush had by far his strongest performance in any debate to date. The former Florida governor, whose last election campaign was in 2002, had looked rusty and hesitant in all his previous outings. On Tuesday night he made a far crisper and more assertive showing. 

Bush delivered the most memorable line of the debate’s early stages when he said Trump was “a chaos candidate. And he’d be a chaos president.” In a later exchange, he told the businessman, “You’re not going to be able to insult your way to the presidency,” a phrase met with applause from the audience at The Venetian casino hotel. 

There were important caveats to Bush’s performance. He didn’t win every tussle. The awkward, fumbling Bush on display in the first four debates suddenly reappeared when it was time for a closing statement. And the biggest question is whether a good debate can really help a candidate who languishes at just 4 percent national support, according to the RealClearPolitics polling average.

Still, Bush's supporters can take heart. The candidate they’ve been expecting for months finally showed up on Tuesday evening.

Bush wasn’t the only one drawing praise for his performance last night. New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie was widely seen as having bolstered his standing as well. Also from The Hill:

Christie, who was once written off in this year’s race, is now a serious contender in New Hampshire, at least. His impressive performances in debates have helped fuel his resurgence. Tuesday was not Christie’s best night at the podium, but he acquitted himself well, especially when he contrasted his executive experience as a governor with the work of the three senators onstage, whom he disparaged as talkers rather than people of action.

On the subject of guarding against terrorism while also not infringing civil liberties, Christie exhorted the moderators to "talk about how we do this, not about which bill ... these guys like more. The American people don't care about that.”

And Bloomberg’s Halperin was similarly impressed with Christie:

As in the last debate, gave a commanding yet measured performance, standing out with a unique style and emphasis. Often addressed voters directly in an us-versus-them manner. Took advantage of the three squabbling senators to tout his executive experience without confronting any particular opponent head on. Confident, assertive, carefully non-abrasive, and driving towards his goal.

The much-anticipated (by some at least) confrontation between Texas Sen. Ted Cruz and Florida Sen. Marco Rubio occurred, and there doesn’t seem to be any clear view on who came out on top. At The Washington Post they give Rubio a “winner” grade and identify Cruz as a “loser,” although they qualify that last one heavily:

The Florida senator proved (again) that he is the best natural debater in the field. Totally in control. Relaxed. Extremely knowledgeable.  He won, rhetorically speaking, a face-off with Cruz over metadata and held his own when Cruz attacked him on his participation in the Senate push for comprehensive immigration reform.  When Trump -- more on this later -- had no clue what the nuclear triad was, Rubio stepped in to flex his policy chops.

The debate focused a bit too much on his Senate record on immigration for Rubio to be a slam-dunk winner. But, he reaffirmed that he is a top-tier candidate -- and deserves to be….

Cruz wasn't actively bad in this debate. His skills as a presenter and performer ensure he will never be genuinely bad. But, he seemed to bite off more than he could chew on several occasions. His face-off with Rubio early in the debate over the NSA didn't end well for him and his extended attempt to interrupt moderator Wolf Blitzer didn't either. Cruz got almost 16 minutes of speaking time -- the most of any of the nine candidates -- but didn't do as much as I expected he would with it. Not a terrible performance by any means. But short of expectations.

The Hill saw the Cruz/Rubio clash as more of a draw:

The two senators have been on the rise in recent polls — Cruz more dramatically than Rubio — and each man seemed to keep his momentum going. The two punched and counter-punched throughout the night on subjects including government surveillance, military spending and immigration. 

The exchanges were often sharp: Cruz repeatedly accused Rubio of sowing confusion and even invoked the name of left-wing organizer Saul Alinsky — a much-hated figure among conservatives  — when describing the Floridian’s tactics. But Rubio stayed on offense for the most part, and Cruz did himself no favors by at times attempting to talk roughshod over rivals and moderators. 

The senators ultimately fought to a draw, and the fact that their jousting took up so much airtime underlined their status as the candidates on the rise, right behind Trump.

And in the estimate of Halperin over at Bloomberg Politics, Cruz edged Rubio, getting a B+ grade, compared with the Florida senator’s B.

Kentucky Sen. Rand Paul generally seemed to have helped himself, falling in the “winner” category at National Journal:

Just ap­pear­ing in the prime-time de­bate alone was a vic­tory for Rand Paul, whom CNN al­lowed on stage “in the spir­it of be­ing as in­clus­ive as pos­sible” des­pite his poor poll num­bers. Paul kept up his at­tacks on Ru­bio, at one point call­ing him “the weak­est of all the can­did­ates on im­mig­ra­tion.” He also carved out his space as a liber­tari­an on sur­veil­lance at a time when Cruz has already made in­roads with voters re­cept­ive to this mes­sage.

This was the Paul that many of his sup­port­ers have been wait­ing to see on the na­tion­al stage. The danger for Paul, when he sounds more and more like his fath­er, Ron Paul, is that do­ing so lim­its his op­por­tun­it­ies to ex­pand his base. But at this stage, Paul needs to lock down his fath­er’s old back­ers to boost his strug­gling cam­paign, and he took an­oth­er step to­ward ac­com­plish­ing that Tues­day night.

Businessman Donald Trump drew mixed grades, possibly because nobody seems to know how to evaluate him in any meaningful way. The Post split its grade, calling him a winner in the first hour and a loser in the second:

1st hour Donald Trump: Halfway-ish through the debate, I thought Trump was clearly in the winner's circle. He was measured in his responses, unruffled under attack and avoided the epic cliches -- we don't win anymore, you will be so happy etc. -- that he typically falls back on.  That hour was the best hour of any debate thus far for Trump. Unfortunately for him, it wasn't a one-hour debate.

2nd hour Donald Trump: He just couldn't keep it up for the whole debate. Trump showed his thin skin when, under attack from Jeb, he dismissed the Florida governor with this polling slam: "I'm at 42 and you're at 3." Later in the debate, Trump clearly had no idea what the nuclear triad was and, in a transparent attempt to cover his tracks, resorted to his "we need to be so strong" crutch.

Retired neurosurgeon Ben Carson didn’t seem to have impressed too many pundits offering assessments, although like Trump the public’s view of his performance has often diverged from those of the experts. Here’s a fairly typical view from The Hill:

The halcyon days of Carson’s presidential campaign look as if they could be over. His poll ratings have been dropping precipitously in recent weeks, since terrorist attacks in Paris and San Bernardino, Calif., raised questions about his grasp of foreign policy. 

Carson’s debate style has always been unorthodox: soft-spoken and affable to his supporters but vague and meandering to his critics. That was acceptable when he was soaring in the polls, but it’s hard to see how it can possibly turn around his recent decline.

The other consensus “loser” was Ohio Gov. John Kasich, who was described this way by the Post:

The Ohio governor needed a moment and just couldn't find one. Thankfully he abandoned the "mad as hell and not going to take it anymore" persona he had adopted for the last debate and got back to who he really is: a committed pragmatist with an impressive record of results in Ohio. But, Kasich's ear for what this electorate wants is way off; at one point, he used his 18 years of service on the House Armed Services Committee as a proof point that he knew what he was talking about [on] national security matters. No Republican voter wants to back someone who touts his two decades spent inside the Washington machine.

Finally, former Hewlett-Packard CEO Carly Fiorina didn’t really do much to help her cause, although she didn’t do poorly either – like Cruz, she is far too polished a presenter to actually turn in a bad performance. Giving her a B-, Halperin wrote at Bloomberg Politics:

Unfurled the greatest hits of her biography, résumé, relationships, and glib one-liners to try to recapture her lost momentum. Touted her tech record repeatedly. Took some glancing shots at Trump but didn’t fight her way into the mix effectively.

Many pundits offering their assessments of the debate last night didn’t even mention Fiorina, suggesting she was largely a non-factor.

The next GOP debate isn’t until Jan. 14, so the impressions left in this debate are likely to linger through the holidays. A strong debate performance by Bush isn’t likely to lead to a resurgence on its own, but it can’t hurt, and was likely necessary to any effort to climb back into contention. Perhaps Bush came away the biggest winner last night by virtue of having helped himself the most at a time when he needed it.