Grading the Candidates, Round 9

South Carolina lives up to its brutal reputation, producing the bloodiest debate yet

In the rowdiest brawl of the GOP debate series to date, the candidates clashed violently over personality, immigration and national defense. The crowd in the room, the most Establishment-friendly of any audience so far, added to the gladiatorial feeling of the fight with raucous booing and cheering throughout the contest that left television viewers wondering if Donald Trump would eventually ask, “Are you not entertained?”

The outsider candidates continued to cement their place as the dominant contenders, and Jeb Bush, the dynastic problem child thought politically dead only weeks ago, made his move to seize the Establishment banner.

Here’s how the six candidates fared in their ninth on-stage contest:

Donald Trump
Final Grade: B+

For much of the night Trump battled against Bush, the Establishment-friendly crowd who repeatedly booed him — and much of the rest of the on-stage GOP field to boot. Trump continued to be himself and survived.

“We’ve spent $5 trillion in the Middle East,” Trump said, hammering Bush for defending the 2003 invasion of Iraq under the administration of his brother, George W. Bush. “You listen to that,” Trump continued, hitting Jeb’s hawkish notes on Syrian President Bashar Al Assad, “we’ll be there for another 15 (years).”

“Donald Trump takes on Cruz”[lz_jwplayer video=”fCBfTgYF” ads=”false”]

Trump was at his strongest batting down the stronger-than-usual attacks from Bush, but he was somewhat bogged down by an unrelenting assault from Cruz over his past weakness on the pro-life issue. “You are one of the single biggest liars,” Trump shot back at Cruz, seeming to have no alternative defense for his past support of partial-birth abortion. Trump also gave Bush’s Super PAC and Cruz more ammunition for attacks ads, saying Planned Parenthood “does do wonderful things” and continuing, “there are wonderful things (Planned Parenthood does) having to do with women’s health.”

Trump took heat from all sides and shot back his usual dismissive, personal lines of attack blended with more substantive populist rhetoric. The night will be a true test of whether the ramped-up attacks from opponents can penetrate Trump’s hide, or whether the mogul’s style will continue to insulate him from the barrages.

Sen. Ted Cruz
Final Grade: B+

The Texas senator notched the most compelling line of the night in his closing statement, highlighting that “two branches of government hang in the balance, not just the presidency, but the Supreme Court.” Cruz added: “If we get this wrong, if we nominate the wrong candidate, the Second Amendment, life, marriage, religious liberty — every one of those hang in the balance.”

“Cruz Combats against Rubio”[lz_jwplayer video=”U6timLIx” ads=”false”]

The line packed a narrative justifying Cruz’s candidacy and a strict constitutionalist ideology into a perfect package of conservative and evangelical public policy priorities. Spoken on the day Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia died, the comment sought to convince conservatives perhaps enthralled with the pure outsider appeal of Trump that the mogul might nominate a liberal, with nightmarish repercussions.

Cruz stood his ground in a toe-to-toe battle with Trump on the mogul’s past support for partial birth abortion, again proving he is perhaps the only candidate who can stand up to the front-runner and repeatedly survive.

Cruz also made repeated, compelling arguments for his flat tax proposal to gut the IRS. Cruz is the last top-tier candidate to support the repeal of the IRS, a popular position with most of the Republican grassroots.

Former Gov. Jeb Bush
Final Grade: B+

Bush, whose candidacy was barely on life support only weeks ago, had his best debate of the contest so far at the time it mattered most for him. His chief rival to the title of Establishment champion, Sen. Marco Rubio, came into the debate humbled and weakened by a fifth place finish in New Hampshire. For Bush, the moment to seize control of the Establishment lane was Saturday night, and he delivered just as Rubio continued to decline.

The often bumbling and awkward Bush was unusually forceful, beating back dings from front-runner Trump and actually offering what could be construed as a reasonable justification for his candidacy.

“Bush Criticizes Trump”[lz_jwplayer video=”S0nJdSN4″ ads=”false”]

“This is the reason I should be president: Listening to two senators talk about arcane amendments to bills that didn’t pass,” Bush said, seeming to finally learn how to contrast himself with opponents.

Later, swatting away swipes from Trump, Bush continued to put his own candidacy in the context of leadership versus rhetoric, saying, “This is about the South Carolina families that need somebody who can be commander in chief, who can lead.”

Always the strongest when offered the chance to defend his family, Bush was also presented with ample opportunities. Those moments of personal verve, combined with his least-bumbling performance yet, put Bush in a position to firmly snatch the Establishment lane banner out of the hands of flagging fellow Floridian Marco Rubio.

Gov. John Kasich
Final Grade: C

“John Kasich Tries to Keep the Peace”[lz_jwplayer video=”sNJN9cCA” ads=”false”]

John Kasich cannot win debates because he does not play at real politics. The Ohio governor continues to double down on his liberal positions, anathema to conservatives, and to refuse to attack the rivals standing in the middle of his path to a competitive position. While those traits may be commendable in a theoretical sense, they betray either a hubris or an ignorance not well-suited to winning a top-tier cage match.

Kasich defended his Obamacare-related expansion of Medicaid in Ohio, allowing even Bush to look the part of a principled conservative on the stage.

Sen. Marco Rubio
Final Grade: D-

For anyone who noticed the robotic Rubio spectacle of the last GOP debate, the Florida senator made sure to reinforce that perception Saturday night. Particularly during the early part of the debate, Rubio called up flagrantly canned lines and speeches. While it’s fairly common for candidates to avoid directly answering moderators’ questions, it was particularly noticeable in light of Rubio’s robotic accusations when he was called out by moderator John Dickerson for pivoting to talking points.

Rubio also played into perceptions of his ill-preparedness to be commander-in-chief and his inconsistency when the best example of handling a crisis he could recall was deliberating on how to vote on an authorization of military force (AUMF) against Syrian President Bashar Al Assad.

“Marco Rubio calls Cruz a Liar”[lz_jwplayer video=”xaEOmMvh” ads=”false”]

With plenty of time to deliberate, Rubio voted against the AUMF in 2013, but he has since advocated for toppling Assad and for increased strikes and greater involvement in the conflict.

Rubio’s best example of his crisis management skills he could recall was a flip-flop where he had weeks, then years, to consider his position. Highlighting that kind of weak judgment — just as Jeb Bush is finding a track to run on by highlighting his executive experience — is a harbinger of disaster for the Rubio campaign.

Dr. Ben Carson
Final Grade: D-

“Ben Carson on Scalia”[lz_jwplayer video=”mKlkZWxX” ads=”false”]

“Two questions already. This is great,” Carson said early on, seeming surprised to be asked a question on a six-man stage during a presidential debate. The former neurosurgeon took several moments to gather his thoughts and attempt to answer the second question before fading, in a familiar pattern, into the background of the debate for the remainder of the night.

As the GOP field shrinks, Carson is clearly out of his depth with the remaining contenders, and despite an abiding ability to raise money, the doctor tops the list of likely dropouts in the near future.

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