Grading the Candidates, Round 6

The field separates as the top contenders brawl for advantage

Seven men went in, but only four men came out.

Fighting off barbs from all sides, Donald Trump loomed large over the GOP debate Thursday, countering attacks and throwing spears at all comers. In a fierce series of exchanges, Trump grappled fiercely with Texas Sen. Ted Cruz in what at times seemed more like a two-man show. But Florida Sen. Marco Rubio largely avoided Trump, choosing to focus his attacks on chief Establishment rival Gov. Chris Christie. Rubio repeatedly hammered Christie with hard-hitting blindsides and obscure attacks gleaned from reams of opposition research, but the Jersey boy gave as good as he got.

Jeb Bush had his best night ever, which isn’t saying much, and he was largely absent from the fireworks. Ben Carson joked that he wanted to be woken up for his first question, and then seemed to drift off into a deep slumber. And John Kasich repeatedly cited his two decades of work in Washington, D.C., not exactly the message that will win over voters in this election cycle.

Here’s how the candidates fared:

Donald Trump
Final Grade: A

Trump had one of his best nights to date. Trump was bested by populist rival Cruz when pressed on the validity of his birther attack on the Texas senator, but roared back into control of the night by blowing Cruz out of the water for the senator’s attacks on his “New York values.”

“I’m very angry because our country is being run horribly, and I will gladly accept the mantle of anger,” Trump said when asked to respond to South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley’s comments warning voters to steer clear of “the siren call of the angriest voices.”

Trump is Angry [lz_jwplayer video=”XrTh3gAf” ads=“false”]

“Our country is being run by incompetent people,” Trump continued in his response, earning big applause and cheers as he channeled the frustration of the nation which has fueled his candidacy so far. “And yes, I am angry,” Trump finished with a Reaganesque flourish.

Trump also jumped on the chance to recognize the police who have suffered intense demonization at the hands of Black Lives Matter and the Left over the course of the last year.

“The police are the most mistreated people in this country,” Trump said. The move to back the demoralized scores of police across the country will be well-placed when, inevitably, the American people take notice of rising crime rates. Police are also public sector union employees, traditional Democrats, whom Trump will be looking to target if he faces Hillary Clinton in a general election.

Overall, Trump was more polished than in past performances, was handed great opportunities to remind his base why they are behind him, and hit the notes which have served him well to date.

“We will make America great again, we will win at everything we do,” Trump said, ending out his closing statement.

Sen. Ted Cruz
Final Grade: B+

It has been a terrible two weeks for the previously ascendent senator from Texas. Cruz seemed to be peaking at the ideal time to win convincingly in Iowa after months riding Trump’s populist wake before a haymaker birther punch from Trump stopped Cruz’s momentum in its tracks.

Then came the New York Times, with an exaggerated and misleading hit on the senator for failing to properly disclose a bank loan during his 2010 race for the U.S. Senate. The media, gleeful to see such a credentialed conservative teetering on the edge of negative momentum, latched on and has been blanketing political news coverage with the story.

Cruz: No Need for Trump’s Legal Advice [lz_jwplayer video=”OgygvmxF” ads=“false”]

In the debate, Cruz desperately needed to change the dynamics of the last two weeks in order to seize the initiative and escape the circling vultures pushing his negatives by hammering Trump.

Cruz largely failed in that mission.

The senator did successfully defend against both the birther and loan attacks. The crowd booed debate host Neil Cavuto when the moderator raised the birther issue, and Cruz earned big cheers when he took on the New York Times for peddling the loan hit piece.

“If that’s the best the New York Times has got, they better go back to the well,” Cruz thundered defiantly.

Cruz was forceful, skillful and eloquent, but in politics, spending your time defending yourself is not time well spent, and Cruz was fighting back from his heels for too much of the contest to successfully shift the conversation.

Sen. Marco Rubio
Final Grade: B

Rubio, unlike Cruz, has demonstrated a more disciplined and more devious approach to handling barbs against him by opponents, as well as legitimate tough questions from debate moderators.

When pressed hard by Cruz for his past support of amnesty for illegal immigrants as part of the Gang of Eight, Rubio did not take time to deny the charge, but rather launched a litany of attacks back at Cruz.

Over the course of his long career in politics, Rubio has learned well that if you’re attacked, it’s better to point your finger at the other guy and say “he’s worse” than to take time to defend yourself.

Rubio: ‘We’re Going to Win This War'[lz_jwplayer video=”A1rVe6w6″ ads=“false”]

Rubio took a similarly wily approach when faced with a tough, fair question from debate moderator Maria Bartiromo on his record of support for more green cards and more legal immigrants to the United States, despite the difficulty Americans continue to face in finding work. Rubio responded with a skillful but deplorable duck and dive worthy of an A-List professional politician.

Where Rubio stumbled was in his transparent attempt to hammer New Hampshire Establishment rival Christie. Christie was able to easily make the attacks launched at him by Rubio look petty and politically motivated.

Gov. Chris Christie
Final Grade: B

Christie successfully deflected attacks on his past from a Rubio desperate to knock out his chief rival for second place in New Hampshire. And he looked the part of the adult in the room at the end of the series of exchanges between the pair. “You already got your chance, Marco. You blew it,” Christie said at one point, deftly seizing time from Rubio.

Christie used the repeated jabs from Rubio for his past moderate positions on several issues to pivot to a more favorable comparison of legislative vs. executive experience, downplaying the professional talkers in the Senate and playing up the accountability and leadership of governors.

Christie Sells Governors over Senators[lz_jwplayer video=”rH8ljqYV” ads=“false”]

Rather than use his time returning Rubio’s attacks, Christie focused on building credibility as a potential general election candidate by lampooning Hillary Clinton for her role in the failed foreign policy of President Obama. Christie said there would be “greater war in this world” under a new Clinton administration and noted there are fewer democracies in the world than before Obama and before Secretary of State Clinton came into office.

Former Gov. Jeb Bush
Final Grade: C

Jeb Bush spent most of the night battling with the English language. The former Florida governor has improved dramatically in the debates from his earlier, cringe-inducing performances but still struggles to deliver his points and hit opponents with the skill of a presidential level contender. At times you could see the Rolodex in his mind flipping over to find the right card for an answer.

Bush’s main wins came from sticking to his strategy of being the most hawkish, pro-military spending candidate on the stage in a state with the 10th largest active duty military population in the country.

Bush: ‘White House to Court House'[lz_jwplayer video=”LOxRycBk” ads=“false”]

“Eliminate the sequester, rebuild our military,” Bush said in one of several direct references to increasing military funding.

Bush has struggled to gain any real traction in the race, and his increasingly military-focused rhetoric, along with large television ad buys in the Palmetto state from his Super PAC, suggest Jeb may be looking to make his stand for a comeback in South Carolina.

Gov. John Kasich
Final Grade: F

“I believe in NAFTA,” Kasich enthusiastically spat out when asked about the Trans-Pacific Partnership trade deal. The Ohio governor evidently failed to do his homework on the host state of the debate, since NAFTA devastated the once booming textile industry in South Carolina, and Georgia as well, by opening U.S. markets to cheap Mexican produced cloth goods.

Kasich on Taxes[lz_jwplayer video=”QIcIhhFJ” ads=“false”]

The other most memorable line from Kasich was a reference to his old chumminess with former South Carolina senator and well-known racist, Strom Thurmond.

What’s more, Kasich repeatedly pointed out his many years in Washington, which voters this time around are most definitely not impressed by. For the candidate previously thought to be a real contender to Rubio and Christie for second place in New Hampshire, it was a dismal night.

Dr. Ben Carson
Final Grade: F

Was Ben Carson even present at the debate? Aside from a characteristically endearing joke about being woken up early in the contest, the former neurosurgeon was nearly completely absent from the memorable exchanges and key lines of the night.

Carson: Need to Fix Our Tax Code[lz_jwplayer video=”lN8uQmR3″ ads=“false”]

All in all, Carson seemed like a candidate who has accepted he will not win the nomination and who put in a correspondingly appropriate amount of effort. Carson is on track for a poor showing in Iowa, where he once led, and there seems to be little justification for his candidacy beyond the Hawkeye state.

Fox Business Channel
Final Grade: A+

After sideshows, chaotic bonanzas, and openly hostile affairs, the Thursday GOP debate on Fox Business Channel was refreshingly on point and tight to the real issues. Moderators Bartiromo and Cavuto gave candidates the chance to answer their biggest negatives, without implying guilt in the questions, and except for the candidates who didn’t try, the time felt evenly allotted.

The debate was largely civil, largely substantive, and was all around more fair than past on-stage clashes.

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