As you know, the final Republican debate before the voting actually begins on Monday went ahead without the clear Republican frontrunner, Donald Trump. Let’s review what we learned from seeing how these guys (and they were all guys, as Carly Fiorina, along with Rick Santorum and Mike Huckabee, didn’t make the cut) performed without Trump’s outsized presence on stage with them.
In a word, they were awful. Ted Cruz and Marco Rubio spent much of the debate trying to tear each other apart to prove how soft the other one was on immigration. Rubio also had a couple of especially bizarre moments when he declared that he was not a savior; that the only savior was (I believe this is an exact quote) “Jesus Christ who came to earth and died for our sins”; and that he was hoping to spend eternity with his Creator; all the while speaking in the exact same rapid-fire monotone that he uses to talk about tax policy. You’d think he could muster something resembling a human emotion when discussing what is presumably the core of his faith. It was strange and unappealing. He did himself no favors last night, IMHO.
Cruz, for his part, did not weather the assault on his supposedly consistent conservative principles well. He was on the defensive most of the night, and he looked it. The consensus reaction, as far as I can tell, is that Cruz failed to capitalize on what should have been a big opportunity for him to control the stage without Trump and to solidify his generally decent poll numbers. Didn’t happen.
The others? Good Lord. We were reminded of just what a bullying, boorish, unpleasant person Chris Christie actually is – he’s just been overshadowed by Trump’s even more outlandish behavior. I can’t imagine anyone walked away from last night’s debate thinking, gosh, it would be great to hear from this guy every day for four years. Rand Paul, as usual, made some decent policy points, but in a peevish, whiny way that is distinctly un-presidential. Carson … well, he didn’t make any more sense than he did the last time, and his closing statement consisted of reciting the preamble to the Constitution (and screwing it up, saying “benefits of liberty” instead of “blessings of liberty”). So, enough said on that.
Kasich, as usual, came across as a generally decent guy who isn’t totally clear on why he’s running for president. His positions are too conservative for anyone left of center to consider him, but too moderate for the GOP. He’s a man without a party, and he will not be the nominee.
Which brings us to Jeb!. Everyone thinks – and I agree – that last night was by far his best debate performance. But the reason is painfully clear: it’s because Trump wasn’t there. Jeb simply cannot handle Trump, and you can’t be president if you can’t function in the presence of an unpleasant guy in your own party. So, even though Jeb had a good night, he also had a bad one.
In short, nobody on stage last night made a credible case for why voters should pick him rather than the guy who didn’t show up. All indications so far seem to be that Trump did, indeed, win the debate by skipping it. Polls still have him ahead in Iowa, and the murmurs are growing ever louder within the GOP that if he wins it, he’ll win it all, especially given his much larger lead in NH.
What a year.