My personal assessment of the GOP debate – Main Event:
Ted Cruz did extremely well. He has positioned himself as the tea party outsider and evangelical favorite, countering Rubio, who is now atop the polls of establishment favorites. His confrontation with Rubio on immigration, data sweeps by intelligence agencies and regime change in the Middle East, set the stage for the debate Conservatives and grassroots activists are eager to see. Cruz has risen to the top of Iowa polling recently, and came prepared for a fight with Rubio, and to defend against his attacks.
Marco Rubio had a good, not great performance. He is at the same level with Cruz in his ability and ease with communicating. He sometimes seemed to be gaining the upper hand, but when confronted by Cruz on his participation in the “Gang of 8” on immigration reform, he looked and sounded rattled when Cruz portrayed him as lining up with liberals like Senator Chuck Schumer of New York in favoring “amnesty” for immigrants who are in the country illegally. He will need to come up with a better explanation for his stance and his plans going forward.
Chris Christie continued to do a fair job of staying in the debate, emphasizing his executive and federal prosecutor experience, painting a contrast to Senators Cruz and Rubio. Christie also did well by repeatedly attacking Obama and Clinton, pointing out how they had repeatedly understated or ignored the threat from Islamic State terrorists, and advocated for more robust intelligence-gathering tools. As a terrorist-hunting former prosecutor, Christie understands the threat of jihadist terrorism from groups like ISIS. He made a mistake citing “King Hussein of Jordan” as an ally. The current monarch is the deceased Hussein’s son, Abdullah II.
Carly Fiorina was Thatcher-like. Did well by acknowledging that the first step to keeping America safe is beating Hillary Clinton. “We will take our country back.” Also did well when she said Silicon Valley companies “do not need to be forced, they need to be asked” to help law enforcement get access to encrypted data, pointing to herself as an example, when at Hewlett-Packard, she provided equipment to assist the National Security Agency. Scored more points by noting that Trump sounds like Obama. Did her best when quoting Margaret Thatcher: “If you want something talked about, ask a man. If you want something done, ask a woman.”
Jeb Bush needed a strong night to give his campaign a chance to get back on track, but probably didn’t do enough. He took the lead in attacking Trump by portraying him as a fearmonger more interested in scaring voters than in planning an effective war against the Islamic State, highlighting Trump’s failure to provide an actual workable plan. Finally bringing the fight to Trump, Bush seemed to get under Trump’s skin for the first time and got on Trump’s nerves by interrupting him. He should have done this in the first debate. Too little, too late.
Ben Carson didn’t do enough to stop his decline in the polls. His burst of popularity earlier this fall faded almost as quickly as it emerged, and his performance illustrated why. Too many questions and doubts about his knowledge of global issues and national security experience remain. It doesn’t matter that he came prepared with statistics and facts intended to demonstrate his improving understanding on foreign policy. He was a non-issue in the debate, and it seems voters are ready to move on. His complaints that a “false narrative” had emerged about his readiness to lead the country fell on deaf ears. Good guy; not presidential material.
Rand Paul started out by giving an opening statement that came across as petulant and peevish. He barely made the cut for the debate, polling near the bottom of the group of top tier candidates. His performance seemed linked to Trump, who he spent most of the evening attacking. Made good points against Trump by questioning whether Trump is a serious candidate, and citing Trump’s proposal to “close the Internet” as getting rid of the First Amendment. Did his best when he came to Cruz’s defense on Rubio’s immigration record.
Donald Trump was low energy. His petty, antagonistic and irascible confrontations with Bush and Paul didn’t help him. His answers to questions, which offer little of substance and almost nothing but blather, touch a disgruntled, angry and frustrated nerve in the GOP electorate, and made for mildly annoying soundbites, which generated boos and heckling. In response to a question from Hugh Hewitt, Trump again said he wouldn’t run as an independent. In September, Trump signed a pledge to not run as an independent, but since that time, he has said he was still considering the option.
John Kasich was the man from Ohio. Also known as “Karate Kasich”:
Kasich’s opening statement about unification is premature. Not at all where the Republican base is right now. GOP voters want to have a deep discussion about the future of the party, and the only way to achieve that is by debating the issues. Came across as whiny explaining why he does not like politics: “It’s too loud and there is too much fighting.” Seriously. Kasich did well by highlighting the need to have a more robust American military presence in Syria and Iraq, and by saying, “Frankly, it’s time that we punched the Russians in the nose. They’ve gotten away with too much in this world.” But, he didn’t do anything to show that he is the man qualified to make any of those things happen.