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Eye On Candidates
February 26, 2016

Rubio, Trump Come Out on Top in Debate

Last night’s debate between the five remaining Republican presidential candidates featured plenty of sharp exchanges, mostly targeting frontrunner Donald Trump, but the general consensus seems to be that a good performance by Florida Sen. Marco Rubio probably won’t do much to alter the outcome in next Tuesday’s “SEC Primary.” The Hill concluded that both Rubio and Trump “won” last night, for example:

Winners, losers in final GOP debate before Super Tuesday

Trump’s performance on Thursday night would not have won him first place in a debating championship. But that hardly matters. The point of the exercise is to win elections — and, by that measure, the billionaire did all he needed to do.

This was a less volatile Trump than was seen at the GOP debate just before the Republican primary in South Carolina. Facing even fiercer attacks from Rubio and Cruz this time, he took some punches but was never put on the canvas, much less knocked out….

He left the stage as he entered it: the clear favorite to become the Republican nominee.

Sen. Marco Rubio (Fla.)

The Florida senator was the prime mover against Trump, especially in the debate’s vital opening stages. He harried the New York tycoon all while wearing a broad smile, and at times seemed to irk Trump…. 

Rubio was not as commanding a presence in the second half of the debate, and doubts remain over whether he will convert a strong debate performance into votes — especially on Super Tuesday, when he is not projected to win a single state.

Still, Rubio had a better night than Cruz, seizing his chance to paint himself as Trump’s prime rival.

Mark Halperin at Bloomberg Politics had a similar assessment, giving both Rubio and Trump an A-minus grade:

Rubio: Confronted Trump with voluminous opposition research and a mocking smile, and stood his ground when the billionaire fought back, but also didn’t get any clean kills, let alone a knockout (except perhaps in the eyes of media and political elites). Spent so much time going after Trump that he had less opportunity to critique President Obama or sell his positive message. Still, gets credit for trying to change the game, and will inspire those who wish to see him stand one-on-one on the stage with Trump down the road.

Trump: Spirited and confident. Purposefully calm in the face of frequent attacks from Rubio and Cruz. Turned many question into opportunities to talk about his favored issues and project the key to his success: s-t-r-e-n-g-t-h. Team Rubio will claim they rattled him—and Trump did have to play a lot of defense (especially on Trump University, health care, and the hiring of non-Americans), but the front-runner emerges on the other side headed for a super Super Tuesday.

Not everyone was so impressed with Trump’s performance, however. Chris Cillizza at The Washington Post lumped the businessman in with the “losers” of the debate:

This wasn't Trump's worst debate. In fact, it might not even be in the bottom half of his performances. He generally counter-punched admirably -- particularly against Cruz. But, Rubio got the better of Trump on several occasions; the Florida senator found ways to embarrass and mock Trump, which is something no one in any previous debate has been able to do. Rubio also effectively exposed the thinness of Trump's policy solutions especially on health care.

I am under no illusion -- and no Republican operative or candidate should be either -- that Rubio's punches on Trump are guaranteed to slow the real estate billionaire's momentum in advance of Tuesday's primaries. But, Trump didn't escape this debate unscathed and, if he can be cut, he was.

Texas Sen. Ted Cruz also was classified as one of the debate’s “losers” by Cillizza, although it seems more accurate to observe he didn’t do what he needed to do, rather than suggest he performed poorly:

Cruz watched -- and I do mean watched -- as Rubio turned the race into a two-man contest between him and Trump.  Cruz was strangely absent from the main back-and-forths of the night.  To the extent Cruz was able to get into a debate with Trump, he spent his time hitting the real estate mogul for making past donations to Democrats. Cast me as skeptical that that line of attack will work. Cruz also tried to make the electability case against Trump but found himself hoisted on his petard by The Donald, who noted that the Texas senator's polls aren't in a great place. Cruz looked like the third wheel in this debate -- a bad place to be with March 1 just five days away.

Halperin at Bloomberg Politics was more charitable, giving him a B for his grade:

Jabbed at Trump (although less often, less intensely, and less effectually than did Rubio) while trying to be a genial populist. Measured and mild, playing it safe, thus largely ceding the alterna-Trump spotlight to Rubio. Now he has to hope his performance was appealing enough to win more votes—including in his must-win home state.

As for retired neurosurgeon Ben Carson and Ohio Gov. John Kasich, the general sense is that they didn’t do much to help themselves, and found themselves among the “losers.” Here’s how The Atlantic described the duo’s evening, which is fairly typical of the coverage:

 And, oh yeah, there were those two other guys on stage: John Kasich and Ben Carson. Kasich got the most attention of the two of them, occasionally jutting in to deliver a long, wonky answer, but he was largely shut out of the Trump-Rubio-Cruz fight, which isn’t a good sign for his chances going forward. Carson, never a strong debater, was a particularly spectral presence Thursday, hardly ever getting a word in edgewise and at one point begging to be attacked so he could talk. Carson did, however, manage to coin an incredible phrase when describing his litmus test for Supreme Court nominees: “The fruit salad of their life is what I will look at.” (Your guess is as good as anyone else’s.)

The general view seems to be that Rubio helped himself a bit by creating the impression the race is now a two-man race between him and Trump, while Cruz didn’t do enough to keep the story going that it’s a three-man race with him in the mix as well. Carson and Kasich both needed to do something last night to demonstrate their relevance to the campaign and show why they deserved consideration, and few seem to think either succeeded. In other words, the status quo (at least since South Carolina’s primary last weekend) seems to have held.