Donald Trump’s absence from the Fox News GOP debate Thursday in Des Moines, Iowa, focused the proceedings more on substance than past clashes, though it included periodic breaks from the issues so that the GOP troupe could launch attacks at second-place Texas Sen. Ted Cruz.
Cruz largely parried the attacks, but he did not command the stage as he has in many past debates. Instead, control of the debate ebbed and flowed more evenly between the candidates than in the previous brawls mostly dominated by Trump, Cruz and Florida Sen. Marco Rubio.
Here’s how the candidates fared:
Sen. Ted Cruz
Final Grade: B+
“I’m a maniac and everyone on this stage is fat and ugly. Now that we’ve got the Donald Trump portion of the debate out of the way … ,” Cruz said in the early minutes of the debate in perhaps the best dismissal of the absent Trump throughout the night.
After the strong line, the Texas senator proceeded to come slowly out of the gate. He failed initially to command the stage. But when the hits started coming from opponents, and moderators pounded him with pointed questions, Cruz found his stride and closed out the debate with a strong finish.
Pressed by debate moderators over his efforts to amend Rubio’s Gang of Eight amnesty bill — to kill it, he says — Cruz forcefully reminded voters why he is the candidate in command on the issue of immigration.
“I Honored My Commitments”[lz_jwplayer video=”Irxs4dZO” ads=”false”]
Cruz channeled “the strongest opponent of amnesty in the United States Congress,” by evoking Sen. Jeff Sessions of Alabama as his strategic partner, and even leader in the fight against amnesty in 2013.
Hit with another question from moderators on whether it’s true no one in Washington, D.C., likes him, Cruz shined.
“I am not the candidate of career politicians in Washington … I’ll tell you the endorsements I’m proud of are the over 200,000 volunteers across this country who have signed up to volunteer for our campaign,” he said.
“Marco chose to go the way of the major donors,” Cruz said in an immigration battle with Rubio, where he defined the contrast in winning style. “I honored my commitments.”
Sen. Marco Rubio
Final Grade: B
Rubio was characteristically strong when hitting hawkish notes on ISIS, Syria, and cracking down on domestic terrorism.
Rubio struggled to dig himself out of a harsh line of questioning from Megyn Kelly over the Gang of Eight amnesty plan. He had no response to repeated questions over how he could square video played by Fox of him opposing amnesty as a candidate for the Senate, only to join Democratic New York Sen. Chuck Schumer in pushing the Gang of Eight immigration reform. Instead, Rubio attempted to dig himself out by talking about border security and trying to shift the amnesty focus onto opponent former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush.
“America’s Light Will Shine Again”[lz_jwplayer video=”b979II4h” ads=”false”]
Rubio openly pandered to Iowa evangelicals by uncharacteristically not only quoting Scripture, but quoting the exact Scripture passage that Trump flubbed during a campaign rally at Liberty University in Lynchburg, Virginia. Rubio later spoke about how faith would guide his life and governing decisions in the White House. His attempts at faith-heavy rhetoric were met with tepid applause from Iowans in attendance who no doubt wondered whether the clearly canned lines were genuine.
Gov. Chris Christie
Final Grade: B
Christie has found his message, and he stuck to it Thursday: Hammer home the notion that governors make better presidents than senators, and lampoon Hillary Clinton.
“When you’re a governor, you have to admit it when you change your mind and positions,” Christie chided Rubio and Cruz early in the night.
Christie has also adopted the tactic employed to some success earlier in the GOP contest by Carly Fiorina (only to be forgotten) of setting up as a foil the Democratic front-runner so he could appear the natural GOP choice for a nominee.
“Nothing Bigger Than That”[lz_jwplayer video=”p3CQfuUS” ads=”false”]
“Let me tell you who’s not qualified to be president of the United States,” Christie thundered. “Hillary Rodham Clinton … She is not qualified to be president of the United States.
“I will be ready, I will take her on, and when I take her on, I guarantee you one thing, she will never get within 10 miles of the White House. The days for the Clintons in public housing are over.”
In another moment evoking memories of strong Fiorina debate performances gone by, Christie passionately answered a question from Bret Baier about whether the New Jersey governor had any larger budget items to cut from the federal government besides Planned Parenthood.
“Bigger than that? When you see thousands upon thousands upon thousands of American being murdered in the womb, I can’t think of anything bigger than that,” Christie said.
Former Gov. Jeb Bush
Final Grade: C+
Like the beat-up geek on the playground the day the bully is out of school, Jeb seemed to come out of his shell and display uncharacteristic confidence with Trump off the stage.
Jeb had perhaps his best debate performance to date, but his surprisingly articulate lines included several long efforts to double-down on his support for amnesty for illegal immigrants. For anyone who hasn’t noticed, which evidently includes Jeb, opposition to GOP weakness on illegal immigration has been the most significant policy factor in the Republican primary contest.
Get The Lawyers Off the Military[lz_jwplayer video=”hy6PZwyD” ads=”false”]
Jeb, seemingly ready to double down on all his negatives in the context of the 2016 race dynamics, also forcefully defended his Establishment roots.
“Look, I am in the Establishment because my dad, the greatest man alive was president of the United States, and my brother, who I adore as well as a fantastic brother was president. Fine, I’ll take it. I guess I’m part of the Establishment because Barbara Bush is my mom. I’ll take that, too.”
Gov. John Kasich
Final Grade: D+
Kasich seemed largely absent for most of the night. The Ohio governor’s strongest, most passionate monologue was focused on the need to begin tackling care of the mentally ill and to reform criminal justice. The ode to social justice felt emphatic, emotional and genuine. But it was just one moment of a long night, and it missed the driving issues of 2016.
An “Optimistic Approach”[lz_jwplayer video=”A5lRgf6i” ads=”false”]
Kasich is in striking distance of a strong finish in New Hampshire, but he evidently assumed most Granite State voters wouldn’t put much heed in the last Hawkeye State debate.
Dr. Ben Carson
Final Grade: C-
In typical Carson debate style, the doctor shone through in the beginning moments of the debate with funny quips and a strong opening statement, only to fade into the deep background for much of the rest of the night.
“We need to stop allowing political correctness to dictate our policies, because it’s going to kill us if we don’t,” Carson said, channeling the outsider personality that fueled his one-time rise in the polls.
2 A.M. Phone Calls[lz_jwplayer video=”XnZNpIOk” ads=”false”]
At times, Carson’s performance felt like a series of oral exams he was taking to pass grade-school courses. The former neurosurgeon demonstrated he has put in some foreign policy and geography homework since his weakness in that arena first torpedoed his ascendance. Carson knew Estonia was among the Baltic states by referencing it along with Lithuania and Latvia. He later recited the beginning of the Constitution verbatim in a slow cadence, which nearly suggested he was having difficulty recalling the words.
Sen. Rand Paul
Final Grade: B
After a lamentable refusal to participate in the last undercard debate, Paul proved he did indeed deserve to be on the main debate stage. The Kentucky senator dished out his hits evenly to the GOP Establishment hawks for their seeming lust for wider war in the Middle East and came after Cruz hard for skipping a recent vote to audit the Federal Reserve.
Lost Our Way[lz_jwplayer video=”FO0CAbpf” ads=”false”]
Rand also put in perspective the physical danger posed by the Establishment open borders policies favored by candidates like Rubio by recalling a 2009 incident where Iraqi refugees in Bowling Green, Kentucky, were discovered plotting to carry out bombing attacks within the United States.
Final Grade: A
If the goal of Trump’s debate-skipping strategy was to dominate the conversation of the GOP debate heading into the Iowa Caucus on Monday, then he succeeded. In the lead-up to the debate, every media outlet incessantly covered the move, and whether he was getting hammered or complimented, inevitably, the entire conversation was about Trump. Even though the debate itself was remarkably devoid of Trump mentions, he hung over the affair like a storm cloud.
If Trump is ultimately victorious in Iowa, the debate-skip will be the keystone of a completely different kind of campaign than has ever come before. Trump has earned his seemingly invincible front-runner status specifically by making the race about himself. The mogul has run on the premise that so long as he is in control of the narrative, he commands the outcome. Iowa will confirm or deny that theory on Monday.
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