Thursday night’s Republican presidential debate didn’t change the basic standings of the race. Donald Trump, who had his best debate so far, will remain on top of the national polls. But the main takeaway is that the Fox Business Channel show gave us a preview of what the GOP contest will look like once the lesser candidates get winnowed out by the early caucus and primaries. Though some of the others on the periphery of the stage such as Chris Christie had their moments, the debate showed that it’s clearly a three-man race for the nomination. Trump, Ted Cruz, and Marco Rubio were not merely the best debaters but were central to the unfolding drama in a way that the others weren’t. With the titanic duels between Trump and Cruz and Cruz and Rubio dominating the highlights, it’s hard to see how any of the others can get the traction or the attention they need to break out.

Had the debate ended after one hour, Cruz would have walked away the winner. The Texas senator demolished Trump on the question of his eligibility for the presidency. While Trump has had his shaky moments in the earlier debates, this was the first time any of his serious rivals faced him down so completely. Cruz was prepared and scored a knockdown. Trump’s lame insinuations and admission that that the only reason he brought up the bogus issue was his rival’s rise in the polls left him looking foolish in a way that previous dustups with Jeb Bush or Carly Fiorina had not.

But Trump recovered in the last half of the debate with an even more devastating body slam of Cruz over the latter’s snide putdown of “New York values.” Though Cruz’s calculated snipe at the Big Apple was probably poll-tested in Iowa, Trump’s pitch perfect response citing the values of the first responders and the clean up crews on 9/11 was nothing short of devastating leaving the senator shame-faced and speechless.

Also performing well was Marco Rubio, who came out swinging on national defense policy and never slowed up. Though he didn’t have a highlight moment to equal either of the Donald-Trump dustups, he scored throughout the night, especially at Cruz’s expense. In one counter-punch late in the debate, he got off what Cruz counted as 11 sharp jabs at his fellow freshman senator. That was a good moment for him. So, too, was his moment of clarity when he explained why Cruz’s embrace of a value-added tax (VAT) was not conservative and that his boasts about shutting down the IRS was nonsensical since someone would have to collect the taxes he would impose.

Though Cruz knocked questions about the two main attacks on him in the last week — Trump’s birther smear and a misleading New York Times story about a loan to his 2012 Senate campaign — out of the park, if all the country remembers from the evening were those highlight moments, he’ll look more like a loser than a winner. In that way, a very strong performance may turn out to be less impressive than it might otherwise have been.

As for the rest of the field, as always Christie had his moments when he scored on security or on entitlements. But his condescending scolding of Rubio and Cruz, when they were having a serious exchange about tax policy as merely senators talking, was ill-considered. After six debates, his boasts about his fight against terrorism as a prosecutor and insistence that only governors should be elected president are getting tired. The same conclusion applies to John Kasich’s endless recitation of his resume. Neither Christie nor Kasich realize that in this election cycle what voters want is passion and vision, not experience.

Jeb Bush didn’t have a bad night but neither did he make much of an impact. His one good moment was when he engaged Trump on his ban of all Muslims, but Bush still has not learned how to close an attack. It always feels artificial and forced, even when he’s got the facts on his side. Though he has enough money to go on sliming Rubio in a deluge of television ads, he has never made an argument for himself as president and this debate reinforced that unfortunate conclusion.

As for Ben Carson, as usual, he seemed lost on stage. His poll numbers have been falling steadily, and his poor performance may only accelerate that process.

Looking at the field, it is still possible for Christie, Kasich or Bush to overtake Rubio in New Hampshire and end his bid to be the leading moderate conservative in the race. In a three-lane race in which Trump has cornered the outlier, independent vote and Cruz the evangelical and Tea Party conservatives, there is still room for a third candidate embraced by portions of the party establishment to make a run at the nomination. But nothing that happened on the stage in Charleston, South Carolina would lead anyone to believe that the third member of the first tier is someone other than Rubio.

But even conceding Rubio that third spot, Trump’s surprisingly nuanced performance illustrated why he must be taken seriously as a possible nominee. It’s true that his stances on issues like security and immigration were mere sloganeering and what he said about China and trade — an issue that theoretically a veteran of international business should command — made no sense whatsoever. But Trump’s ability to channel voter anger at the political establishment combined with his smart smack down of Cruz on New York illustrated why he’s way ahead right now.

The previous debates have often seemed to confuse the issue of who will be the finalists as the huge field provided more confusion than clarity. But that wasn’t the case in Charleston as the three men at the top shined the brightest. How that trio will be sorted out will ultimately be decided by the voters in the primaries and not the polls or pundits handicapping the debates. But with less than three weeks to go before the first votes are cast, the shape of the 2016 race appears to finally have been defined.

+ A A -
You may also like
Share via
Copy link