A narrowed 2016 GOP presidential field took the debate stage Saturday evening for a contest that, aside from a few key exchanges, was markedly devoid of personal confrontations and prepared attacks.
Instead, candidates focused on their own campaign pitches, personal anecdotes and demonstrations of their policy chops. All in all, they seemed more concerned with playing it safe than landing damaging blows.
In this last on-stage appearance before Tuesday’s New Hampshire primary, here’s how the candidates fared.
Gov. Chris Christie
Final Grade: A-
Christie had a strong night. The New Jersey governor forcefully defended his record of cutting back out-of-control spending in New Jersey and creating jobs in a state hard hit by the economy and mismanaged for years by a Democrat administration.
He opened the debate with a sustained, brutal assault on Florida Sen. Marco Rubio, suggesting Rubio’s veneer of political eloquence obscured a lack of experience and substance.
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“That’s not leadership, that’s truancy,” Christie said, hammering Rubio for failing to show up in the U.S. Senate for a vote on his own bill. Christie continued to mock Rubio for his highly practiced responses. “That’s what Washington, D.C. does,” Christie said. “The drive-by shot at the beginning with incorrect and incomplete information, and then the memorized, 25-second speech that is exactly what his advisers gave him.”
Christie needed to level Rubio at this debate, and while the assault was worthy of the urgency, the attacks and subsequent stumbles from Rubio were likely not strong enough to change the dynamics of the race headed into Tuesday. The onslaught was, however, certainly memorable enough to lead post-debate coverage of the night.
Sen. Ted Cruz
Final Grade: A-
For the first time in several on-stage clashes, Cruz was left with breathing room to re-establish his appeal, free from attacks from rivals. The Texas senator capitalized on the opportunity to remind voters of the principled conservative narrative of his campaign and his fluency in foreign policy.
Cruz honed in on the Obama administration’s nuclear deal with Iran.
“It’s why this Iranian nuclear deal is so catastrophic,” Cruz said, pointing to the strategic danger of dealing with what will be a nuclear Iran. “And it’s why I’ve pledged, on the very first day in office, to rip to shreds this Iranian nuclear deal … The stakes are too high.”
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As Cruz largely shined without taking fire from his rivals, ABC News moderator Martha Raddatz seemed hostile to him, challenging his proposals to loosen the rules of engagement that restrict the military from bombing key ISIS targets. She deployed her own dubious anecdote about military personnel, remarking they liked the current rules of engagement.
Raddatz also tried to pan Cruz for having a forceful policy to degrade and destroy ISIS yet also suggesting he would need to look at top-security intelligence to decide whether to prematurely strike missile sites in North Korea. Cruz quickly retorted that he had received intelligence briefings on the ISIS situation, and that to make an uninformed judgment on North Korea wouldn’t be presidential leadership.
Cruz shined through the biased dings from Raddatz and earned huge applause lines for promising to rescind every Obama executive order “with the strike of a pen.” In his closing statement, Cruz also offered an important tribute to the power of principles by pointing out he won Iowa despite campaigning against mandated ethanol subsidies.
Cruz also struck a deeply personal note discussing the tragedy of opioid addiction. The Texas senator recalled the struggle of his half-sister and his experience trying to save her from a life of drug-dependency. The moment was humanizing and powerful for the candidate often accused of being calculating. The emotional recounting of the story was easily the most compelling part of the night.
Final Grade: B
Trump both won and lost the debate for being a more subdued version of himself. He did not provide adversaries or skeptics any ammunition in the way of edgy or provocative statements, but neither did Trump do anything to regain control of the conversation.
In past debates, Trump’s lampooning of moderators and rivals dominated the post-clash coverage. Aside from whacking former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush for “trying to be a tough guy” during a spat over the place of eminent domain, the business mogul largely avoided grappling with his opponents
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Instead, Trump stuck to bashing Obama’s record. He called the president “totally incompetent” and said “he doesn’t know what he’s doing.”
One of Trump’s best lines of the night came when he reminded voters of his no-nonsense appeal.
“We actually have a case where we don’t want to bomb the oil, because we don’t want to hurt — pollute the atmosphere. Can you imagine General Douglas MacArthur or General Patton saying we can’t bomb because we’re gonna hurt the atmosphere?” Trump asked rhetorically, drawing thunderous applause.
Gov. John Kasich
Final Grade: B
Kasich had perhaps his most genuine and affable debate performance but did nothing to bring down his Establishment-lane rivals or ramp up his own numbers.
Kasich spoke well of his record, largely bereft of his usual arrogance, and seemed authentically cheerful throughout the night, as befitting his self-appointed role as the positive campaigner. The Ohio governor hit his usual more-moderate points about the need for government to step in to help the downtrodden.
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Kasich once again doubled-down on his left-leaning approach to immigration. Kasich spoke forcefully against deportations for illegal immigrants who have lived in the nation for an extended period without committing a crime. With illegal immigration a top concern of GOP voters, Kasich is not likely to get a bump from cutting against the grain of the Republican base.
Former Gov. Jeb Bush
Final Grade: C
To his credit, Jeb did speak intelligently on foreign policy. But to his detriment, the points of policy were made in his usual bumbling manner.
Jeb struggled through a line of questioning on whether women should register for the Selective Service System. The former Florida governor kept repeating that women should register, then reminded the audience there is not currently a draft in a series of statements so obviously repetitive it seemed Jeb was just trying to convince himself.
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In a moment of “Thurston Howell comes to New Hampshire,” Jeb also said he would “like to see more millionaires” before describing meeting a struggling woman whose neighbor got by more readily on government assistance than she did by working.
Sen. Marco Rubio
Final Grade: C-
Early in the contest, Rubio struggled to react to a blistering line of attack from Christie. Rubio continuously shifted to his canned lines and opposition research attacks on Christie as the New Jersey governor called out the Florida senator for repeating prepared statements.
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Rubio’s strongest moment came when he rejected criticism of his inexperience. He noted the Obama administration has been a disaster because of the president’s systematic efforts to push a radical leftist agenda, not because he was a first-term senator when he assumed the Oval Office. But Rubio’s moment will be overshadowed by the coverage of Christie’s relentless zingers.
During an exchange on social issues, Rubio offered reason for pro-life voters to pause by offering equal status to the choice and life arguments, saying, “I have chosen to err on the side of life.” Many Republican primary voters are adamantly pro-life and do not consider the protection of human life a question of merely erring on one side.
Dr. Ben Carson
Final Grade: C-
In what has become his hallmark debate strategy, Carson kept quiet for most of the night.
Aside from attempting to continue his hyperbolic outrage at Cruz for an Iowa caucus night email blast implying the former neurosurgeon may be exiting the race, Carson had a forgettable debate performance.
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“Washington ethics says you do what you need to do, if it’s legal, in order to win,” Carson said, hitting Cruz.
But Cruz was profusely contrite about the incident, and Carson’s lack of other material was eminently noticeable.
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