GOP candidates prior to the debate. Asked if he looked forward to being on stage without his nemesis, Donald Trump, former Florida Governor, Jeb Bush smiled nervously and gave two thumbs -up.

My personal assessment of the GOP debate – Main Event:

Marco Rubio did extremely well as the winner of the debate. His very good answers on a range of issues; Hillary Clinton’s complete lack of qualifications for the presidency, immigration, and rational foreign policy served to distinguish him from the lower tier of competition. His statement that Iran’s leaders want to hold America hostage was on-target, and it helped his candidacy that he vowed cancel the deal with Iran, forcing other nations (look at Europe and China) to decide if they desire to do business with America or with Iran. Rubio turned the energy / aggressiveness up a notch, focusing on attacking the camera with nearly every question. He did well highlighting the contrast between himself and Clinton, making a strong case against the embattled politician, currently under FBI investigation.

Jeb Bush needed a strong night to give his campaign a chance to get back on track, and with the absence of his nemesis, The Donald, he finally got it. He benefited the most tonight by Trump’s absence on the stage and had his best debate of the cycle so far. Instead of wasting time playing defense and constantly looking over his shoulder in anticipation of an attack from Trump, Bush was finally able to contribute to the debate in a substantive way. Good points on foreign policy and in addressing immigration. Also did well on the VA scandal, an issue that may have been forgotten about by many voters.

Ted Cruz had his worst debate of the series. Without Trump onstage, Cruz served as the front-runner and primary target of his opponents. With only days until the Iowa Caucus, and taking full advantage of a national audience, the competition poured on the attacks. Cruz’s grasp of the issues and principled stances allowed him to withstand the brunt of the attacks and to stand his ground on a number of issues.  His views on ethanol subsidies — a touchy issue in Iowa, are the most visible aspect of his perspective that does not countenance winners and losers being picked by the Washington DC cartel. He ran into some problems explaining his absolutely necessary parliamentary / legislative maneuvering to derail the “Gang of Eight” legislation in a way that didn’t come across as cunning, calculating, or cynical.

Rand Paul finally emerged on the national debate stage as a candidate with viable arguments on the issues of the day. On the issues in his wheelhouse, specifically criminal justice reform and balancing liberty with security, his focus served to advance the debate, highlighting the need to address these issues with conservative leadership.

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. Did well in attacking presumptive Democrat nominee, Hillary Clinton very aggressively, highlighting his time as a U.S. Attorney and prosecutor, ensuring voters do not forget her cynical scheming to place her personal convenience and agenda above the law and the national security of America.

John Kasich was the man from Ohio, whose dad was a mailman. His inability to answer any question in a substantive or meaningful way leaves most debate watchers wincing in pain whenever he was called upon to contribute to the debate. Mind-bogglingly, he not only defended the Obama administration’s dangerously naive deal with Iran, he was completely unable to explain how to hold a completely untrustworthy Iranian regime accountable if (when) they break any part of the agreement as Europe and China set up business arrangements with the terror-sponsoring state.

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.

Donald Trump wasn’t there.

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