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Eye On Candidates
February 15, 2016

Grading the Republicans on S.C. Debate

The six remaining Republican presidential candidates met over the weekend for a debate in South Carolina, and the reviews seem to suggest that former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush helped his campaign the most and Florida Sen. Marco Rubio also turned in a far better performance than he did in New Hampshire. Here’s how The Hill wrote up the Bush performance, after labeling him a “winner” of the event:

GOP debate winners and losers

Bush delivered his best debate performance when he needed it most. 

He stood up to Trump far more effectively than during any previous clash and seemed to get under the business mogul’s skin at times. 

Repeatedly, he sought to undercut Trump’s self-image as the ultimate winner, assailing him as “weak” for his remarks on women and the disabled; as the owner of “failed casinos” in Atlantic City, N.J., and as “a man who insults his way to the nomination.”  

The fire in Bush’s belly also helped him edge out one of his major rivals for establishment voters, Marco Rubio. That could be important since, of the three major polls of GOP voters in South Carolina conducted since last week’s New Hampshire primary, Bush lags Rubio in two and is tied with him in the third. 

There is still a question mark over how many GOP voters this year are open to backing a pillar of the establishment such as Bush. But this was a very strong night for him….

Over in Politico, Glenn Thrush describes how Bush took on businessman Donald Trump and emerged on top:

Jeb Bush finally beat Donald Trump. It took him eight tries, but the substantive and polite former Florida governor (by “polite,” I mean he lets his super PAC do the lead-pipe wet work) finally got under Trump’s armor. With nothing left to lose, Bush seemed more confident and less inclined to let Trump get in the last word.

Trump’s 9/11 comments were probably the biggest headline of the night — and there’s no indication that anything the developer-turned-reality star said will hurt him — but he was definitely on the defensive. And the man who put him there was Bush, the object of Trump's derision and one-liners for half a year. The once-presumed front-runner continued his focused attacks on Trump’s less-than-stellar record of standing up for the forgotten Americans he purports to represent, reminding the audience that Trump used New Jersey’s eminent domain law to displace elderly homeowners to erect “failed casinos for high rollers.”

But his most effective diss was aimed at dismantling Trump’s key general-election electability argument — that he’s a neo-Ronald Reagan, capable of crossing over with independents and Rust Belt Democrats. “Reagan did not tear down people like Donald Trump,” Bush said, as his opponent stood there and took it. “He tore down the Berlin Wall.”

Rubio also did well, although his positive reviews could also be bolstered by his previous poor performance in the New Hampshire debate. The data-driven analysts at, who gave Bush a “B-plus” grade (the highest grade given any of the candidates), gave Rubio the same high mark. In a Politico story offering the views of their panel of experts, the Florida senator came out on top:

…[A] plurality of Republican insiders — 44 percent — said Marco Rubio won the night. Slightly more than one-third of Democrats agreed.

The stakes were high for the Florida senator, who a week earlier had a widely panned debate performance and went on to underperform in the New Hampshire primary. But insiders said he redeemed himself on Saturday.

“Tonight's performance made you forget his last debate disaster,” a New Hampshire Republican said.

“Rubio is back. Rubio is back. Rubio is back,” said a South Carolina Republican of Rubio, who last week was criticized for repeating the same lines. “He dismantled Cruz without getting too entangled with Trump. If South Carolina voters were paying attention tonight, this could be a huge boost for him.”

The Hill was somewhat less impressed, however, giving him a “mixed” grade:

Rubio will be relieved to have gotten through the two-hour clash in Greenville without making any obvious gaffes. That, in itself, could restore some stability and confidence to his campaign. 

That said, his debate had few standout moments, with the possible exception of a defense of George W. Bush from Trump’s attacks. 

Like Cruz, therefore, Rubio did not slip up but nor did he shine — even if various TV pundits in the debate’s immediate aftermath suggested otherwise.

Ohio Gov. John Kasich also made it onto the “winners” list in The Hill’s article, which noted that he managed to stay out of much of the “mud” being tossed back and forth by the other candidates. But thought that was only good for a “C-plus” and CNN suggested a major vulnerability for Kasich was on full display in the debate:

Kasich's single biggest weakness with Republican primary voters has long been his decision to expand Medicaid in Ohio under Obama's health care law.

His second-place finish in New Hampshire finally had Kasich -- who prefers to stay out of the fray -- playing defense on that decision….

Kasich doesn't often mix it up with his debate-stage rivals…. But he could find himself increasingly under scrutiny if he's able to prove in South Carolina that his appeal to moderates and establishment-type Republicans extends beyond New Hampshire.

As for Trump, he seems to be getting low marks from most debate watchers, including the Politico Caucus, a group of early-state strategists, operatives, and activists:

Sparks flew Saturday night, and Donald Trump got burned — more than half of Republican insiders say the billionaire was the loser at the GOP primary debate in Greenville, South Carolina.

That’s according to the POLITICO Caucus, our weekly survey of the top activists, operatives and early-state strategists. Fifty-four percent of Republicans surveyed, and one-quarter of Democrats, said Trump lost the contest. And two-thirds of Republican insiders said former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush got the better of Trump during their numerous confrontations throughout the night.

“Trump lost any chance to grow his base with his mean-spirited performance,” a South Carolina Republican said of Trump, the current poll-leader in that state one week from the primary. “He may still receive a quarter of the vote on February 20, but he will fall far below polling expectations. Trump's attack on President George W. Bush was galactic-level stupid in South Carolina.”

Of course, it’s worth recalling that nearly every prediction to date of Trump being damaged by a debate performance or public statement or anything else has failed to pass, and it’s possible this will prove to be true in this case.

Texas Sen. Ted Cruz also was given a “mixed” grade by The Hill and few thought he did much to distinguish himself in the debate. He and Rubio clashed several times, as CNN observed:

Cruz had accused Rubio of saying on Univision in Spanish that he would not repeal President Barack Obama's executive actions on immigration.

Rubio retorted: "I don't know how he knows what I said on Univision because he doesn't speak Spanish."

That's when Cruz looked at Rubio and uttered a few words in Spanish, challenging Rubio to continue in that language "if you want."

The battle was over the same immigration issues that have been the subject of attacks between the two for months: Rubio sponsored an immigration overhaul measure in 2013 that would have created a path to citizenship for undocumented immigrants. Cruz opposed it, but offered his own amendment swapping out a path to citizenship for legal status. Rubio has repeatedly raised it to muddy their differences on immigration.

"Ted Cruz has just been telling lies," Rubio said.

As for retired neurosurgeon Ben Carson, he seemed to be an afterthought for most. gave him a “C-minus,” the lowest of the six, and he was the only candidate referred to as a “loser” of the debate by The Hill. Jennifer Rubin in The Washington Post simply said in her debate review that “Dr. Ben Carson, as always, seemed out of place in a presidential debate.” His performance didn’t even merit listing among the winners (Bush, Rubio) or the losers (Cruz, Kasich, Trump) of the event.

The pre-New Hampshire primary debate almost certainly had an impact on the results, causing Rubio to lose his post-Iowa momentum and finish in fifth place. South Carolina voters head to the polls on Saturday, and it’s possible that last Saturday’s event will play a role in the outcome.