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For this debate, rather than using poll numbers, candidates were arranged by tie color, from darkest blue to darkest red.

My personal assessment of the GOP debate – Main Event:

Ted Cruz did extremely well, with a bit of an uneven performance. While he has become the candidate best positioned to represent the Conservative / Liberty / Tea Party elements of the party, and is a darling of the evangelical wing, his ability to counter Rubio, while keeping Trump at bay is becoming more of a juggling act. His confrontation with Trump on his birthright citizenship was high point that elevated Cruz above the rest of the field. When discussing the motivation for Trump’s attack, Cruz gave a couple of the most memorable lines of the night; “the Constitution hasn’t changed, but the poll numbers have,” and later, “I’m not going to take legal advice from Donald Trump.” He did well explaining a New York Times “story” about an improperly, but completely disclosed 2012 campaign loan from Goldman Sachs. His confrontation with Rubio on seeming inconsistencies in his positions on issues brought him back down a bit. Cruz continues to hold the top position in recent Iowa polling.

Marco Rubio also did extremely well, also with a bit of an uneven performance, to score a tie with Cruz, but I give Cruz the slight edge in both talking time and in setting the stage early. He and Cruz are near equals in ability and ease with communicating. He toned down his usual optimism and sunniness, and brought an intensity that allowed him to display a bit more strength. His very good answers on a range of issues; Hillary Clinton’s complete lack of qualifications for the presidency, the Second Amendment, and trade and jobs served to distinguish him from the lower tier of competition. He wound up looking a bit weak on immigration and his answer on this topic was somewhat halting and inadequate. It could have actually weakened what had been a strong performance, until (sensing an opportunity) Cruz miscalculated the seeming opportunity and pounced on Rubio over the ‘Gang of Eight’ immigration legislation. Effectively, this pulled Rubio back from what would have been a third-place finish. Rubio fired off a laundry list of Cruz policy shifts on immigration and a host of other issues, ending with a solid hit; “that is not consistent conservatism. That is political calculation.” When Cruz acerbically replied, thanking Rubio for emptying his “oppo-research” playbook, Rubio went in for the kill: “It’s your record.” Mic drop. While some of the charges Rubio leveled are unfair and inaccurate, the moment crystallized one of the dynamics of the campaign thus far. His confrontation with Christie was far weaker.

Donald Trump gave his best debate performance of the campaign thus far. Standing center-stage, the front-runner lacked the strong knowledge on policy that Cruz and Rubio display. However, his response to Cruz’s “New York Values” slight was effective at bringing Cruz back down a bit and humanizing Trump as someone who truly loves NYC. His answer on whether he could separate himself from his business interests were he to become president was the best possible reply he could have given. Trump’s closing statement in which he spoke of construction workers he’d met who were angry over the incident in which Iran captured and humiliated US sailors just before Congress votes on the Iran nuke deal was very effective.

Chris Christie continued to do a fair job of staying in the debateemphasizing his executive and federal prosecutor experience, painting a contrast to Senators Cruz and Rubio. He stressed the urgent need for entitlement reforms that thus far have gone unaddressed in an adequate fashion. During his confrontation with Rubio, Christie made several assertions which were either demonstrably inaccurate or false. Specifically, support for President Obama’s nomination of Sonia Sotomayor to the United States Supreme Court, and in 1994, Christie was quoted as saying that he supported “Planned Parenthood privately with my personal contribution and that should be the goal of any such agency, to find private donations.” (Christie was pro-choice in 1994, but then became pro-life.)

Jeb Bush needed a strong night to give his campaign a chance to get back on track, but didn’t do enough. Bush was clear and concise in his delivery, but it has become painfully obvious that the gift of political gab in the family went to W. His “grown-up onstage” personality gained zero traction in the debate and has also proven to do so in the primary. While establishmentarians may find the dulcet tones of the former Florida governor soothing and reassuring, the GOP electorate has not. In response to Trump’s proposal to ban Muslims from the U.S., Bush accurately insisted, “This policy is a policy that makes it impossible to build the coalition necessary to hit ISIS.” It remains to be seen whether or not voters will agree.

John Kasich was the man from Ohio, whose dad was a mailman. Once again, he was also known as “Karate Kasich”:

karate

In almost any other election cycle – think 1992, 1996, Kasich might almost be an ideal candidate, able to boast about a fantastic resume, critical experience and hailing from the most important of the swing states. He’s been a popular governor in Ohio and he has political chops. But his message (grating, annoying and tiresome at times) and delivery (see the above image) leaves most debate watchers wincing in pain whenever he was called upon to contribute to the debate.

Ben Carson did nothing to stop his freefall in the polls. His burst of popularity earlier this fall faded almost as quickly as it emerged, and his performance last night again illustrated why. Too many questions and doubts about his knowledge of global issues and national security experience remain. He was a non-issue in the debate, and it seems voters are ready to move on. Carson is an incredibly likable man with an exceptional personal history. His life story enables him to offer an entirely different perspective, but he continues to fade before our eyes as a viable candidate. Good guy; not presidential material.

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