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Tuesday evening’s GOP debate on CNN was arguably the most substantive and most combative GOP contest of this election season. There were sparks flying everywhere though in the end very little changed.

This was the first time the GOP hopefuls shared a stage since the terrorist massacres  in Paris and San Bernardino, which made the contest particularly relevant. For the most part the arguments focused on the differences between their positions and demonstrated the isolationist vs. interventionist ideological divide in the GOP. But the debate could have been more worthwhile if there were fewer participants.

In the end there were no big winners or losers in the debate (except for the viewers) and I suspect that when the polls come out, most candidates relative positions in the race will be the same.  Below is a look at each of the candidate’s performances (in alphabetical order):

Jeb Bush: According to NPR’s calculations Bush spoke for 10:13, far less than Trump, Cruz, and Rubio who had 30% to 50% more time. Despite that, it was clearly Jeb Bush’s best debate so far, he was aggressive and had a few good jabs at Donald Trump. But it was probably too late. If Jeb turned in this performance in the first, second, or even the third debate, his campaign wouldn’t be facing extinction. Some of his best punches was when he called Trump “a chaos candidate,” or he told Trump he couldn’t insult his way to the White House, and when he accused the businessman of getting his foreign policy from the Saturday morning Cartoons. But it was Trump who won the best exchange between the two, not because of the difference in policy but due to the Donald’s unique brand of humiliation:

Bush: So I was — I was — I was mentioned, so I can bring up something, I think, right? Look, the simple fact is, if you think this is tough you’re not being treated fairly…

Trump: This isn’t tough and easy. I wish it…

Bush: … imagine what it’s going to be like dealing with Putin or dealing with President Xi.

Trump: I wish it was always this easy as you, Jeb.

Bush: Or dealing with the Islamic terrorism that exists.

Trump: Oh, yeah.

Bush: This is a tough business to run for president.

Trump:  (sarcastically) Oh, I know. You’re a tough guy, Jeb. I know.

Bush:And it’s — and we need…… to have a leader that is…

Trump: You’re tough.

Bush: You’re never going to be president of the United States by insulting your way to the presidency.

Trump: Well, let’s see. I’m at 42, and you’re at 3. So, so far, I’m doing better.

Bush: Doesn’t matter. Doesn’t matter.

Trump: So far, I’m doing better. You know, you started off over here, Jeb. You’re moving over further and further. Pretty soon you’re going to be off the end…

That last slam by Trump points to Bush’s problem. In the first debate he was right next to “The Donald,” this time he was the second to the end and working his way off the platform.  That’s a trend almost impossible to reverse.

Dr. Ben Carson: Dr. Carson displayed real growth in Foreign Policy. However for those looking for a “Patton-esque” leader, Carson’s soft manner was not reassuring.  At one point radio host Hugh Hewitt tried to help in shake off that soft image by asking if the Doctor would be able to pull the trigger. Interestingly, the crowd booed, and there was negative reactions to the line of questioning on twitter as many believed it to be a “gotcha” question.  But as you can see below the radio host was trying to help the doctor out by helping him to seem strong:

Hewitt: Dr. Carson…

… you mentioned in your opening remarks that you’re a pediatric neurologist surgeon…

Carson: Neurosurgeon.

Hewitt: Neurosurgeon. And people admire and respect and are inspired by your life story, your kindness, your evangelical core support. We’re talking about ruthless things tonight — carpet bombing, toughness, war. And people wonder, could you do that? Could you order air strikes that would kill innocent children by not the scores, but the hundreds and the thousands? Could you wage war as a commander-in-chief?

Carson: Well, interestingly enough, you should see the eyes of some of those children when I say to them we’re going to have to open your head up and take out this tumor. They’re not happy about it, believe me. And they don’t like me very much at that point. But later on, they love me.

Sometimes you — I sound like him.

You know, later on, you know, they really realize what’s going on. And by the same token, you have to be able to look at the big picture and understand that it’s actually merciful if you go ahead and finish the job, rather than death by 1,000 pricks.

Hewitt: So you are OK with the deaths of thousands of innocent children and civilian? It’s like… (BOOS)

Carson: You got it. You got it.

Hewitt: That is what war — can you be as ruthless as Churchill was in prosecuting the war against the Nazis?

Carson: Ruthless is not necessarily the word I would use, but tough, resolute, understanding what the problems are, and understanding that the job of the president of the United States is to protect the people of this country and to do what is necessary in order to get it done.

Chris Christie: The New Jersey governor had about 10:45 to speak which puts him fourth of the nine candidates.  It was easy to understand Christie’s strategy for the evening as each one of his answers seemed to follow the same format: noun, verb, adjective, noun, “I was the U.S. Attorney.”  He was trying to prove his foreign policy credentials by reminding the audience that he prosecuted terrorists.  And that was very effective.

Christie continued with the effective approach he took in the previous debates, looking directly at the camera (TV audience) rather than the other candidates which gives him an air of honesty and authority (although one twitter commenter sent out a desperate sounding message, “He’s staring at me–please make him stop–he’s freaking me out). Christies performance in the debate was one of the best, and may help him improve his numbers in New Hampshire the first primary of the season. Christie has shown growth in New Hampshire (from 5.3% to 10.3% in the Real Clear Politics or RCP average). Despite the probable improved New Hampshire standing,  Trump has almost three times the support at 28.7%, which means Christie has a long way to go in the 55 days between today and the primary.

Perhaps the Governor’s best moment was following a Rand Paul, Marco Rubio exchange. He explained the advantage of having an ex-governor rather than an ex-senator as a president:

Listen, I want to talk to the audience at home for a second. If your eyes are glazing over like mine, this is what it’s like to be on the floor of the United States Senate. I mean, endless debates about how many angels on the head of a pin from people who’ve never had to make a consequential decision in an executive position.

Ted Cruz and Marco Rubio :  One of the subplots of Tuesday’s debate was the battle between the two Cuban young guns, Ted Cruz and Marco Rubio. Some pundits believe if Trump fails, it will be Rubio and Cruz battling for the nomination as the primaries wind down and the two were ready to rumble.

It was clear that CNN wanted the conflict also as Cruz was was given more time than any other candidate (15:58) and Rubio was second with 13:33.

Cruz’s approach to the war on terror took some ideas from the libertarians and others from the interventionists. He is very opposed to the NSA collecting phone data but on the other hand he offered a somewhat hyperbolic carpet bombing of ISIS, then backed off and said he would only carpet bomb the military areas (which goes against the indiscriminate nature of carpet bombing).

In the contest between the two it was too close to call. Both made their points.

For those who believe the Frank Luntz debate focus groups, Cruz was the big winner. The group’s participants were in near-unanimous agreement that Ted Cruz was very impressive. Luntz’s results seemed to justify Cruz’s strategy of avoiding conflict with Trump, as the words used to describe the senator were similar to the description of the NY businessman used by his supporters. Words such as “believable,” “truthful,” “presidential,” and “commanding.”

“We are sick of weakness in the White House,” one man said. “We’re looking for somebody strong … Ted Cruz is both strong and, in my opinion, he was very precise.”

Multiple members of the focus group applauded Cruz for his strong stance on terrorism and for explicitly stating that, if elected, he will “hunt down and kill the terrorists.”

Cruz’s carpet-bombing  approach to fighting ISIS earn him big applause, Rubio’s approach seemed more detailed and just as strong and at times seem to have a slightly better handle of the details of our defense needs than any of the other candidates as demonstrated by his answer about the defense triad:

First, let’s explain to people at home who the triad — what the triad is. Maybe a lot of people haven’t heard that terminology before. The triad is our ability of the United States to conduct nuclear attacks using airplanes, using missiles launched from silos or from the ground, and also from our nuclear subs’ ability to attack. And it’s important — all three of them are critical. It gives us the ability at deterrence.

Now, some have become more critical than others; for example, the submarines. And that’s the Ohio Class submarine that needs to be modernized. The air component also needs to be modernized. The B-52, as someone earlier pointed out, is an outdated model that was flown by the grandparents of people that are flying it now. And we need a serious modernization program as well on our silo-launched missiles. All three are critical for the defense of the country.

Cruz seemed to back Rubio on his heels in the illegal immigration discussion, which turned into an I said-you said fight about who supports amnesty. Rubio kept saying his Texas colleague once supported legalization which Cruz denied. In truth Rubio was correct. In 2013 when the “Gang of Eight” bill was pending before Congress Cruz offered an amendment to strike the path to citizenship but emphasized, that he was leaving in place the legalization procedures in other words, for the people who were here. So both supported amnesty, but in different forms.

Carly Fiorina got screwed! She gave made some excellent points, and displayed a depth of knowledge but only received 9:32 of time– less than anyone in the debate besides Kasich.

One of her interchanges with moderator Wolf Blitzer displayed both the best and the worst of Ms. Fiorina:

Blitzer: Ms. Fiorina, the former defense secretary, Bob Gates, says the chances of getting Sunni-Arab forces on the ground to get the job done, his words, “chances very remote.” What’s your strategy?

Fiorina: Well, first I’ll just point out that talking tough is not the same as being strong. And to wage war, we need a commander in chief who has made tough calls in tough times and stood up to be held accountable over and over, not first-term senators who’ve never made an executive decision in their life.

One of the things I would immediately do, in addition to defeating them here at home, is bring back the warrior class — Petraeus, McChrystal, Mattis, Keane, Flynn. Every single one of these generals I know. Every one was retired early because they told President Obama things that he didn’t want to hear.

We must have Sunni-Arabs involved in this coalition. We must commit leadership, strength, support and resolve. I’ll just add that Margaret Thatcher once said, “If you want something talked about, ask a man; if you want something done, ask a woman.”

The best? Her proposal to bring back the Generals who were pushed out by the Administration because they disagreed with Obama, and her references to being an executive. Until the very end of that section she was very strong.  Personally however, I found the Thatcher quote a bit off-putting. Not because I am a man, but because it gives support to Hillary Clinton’s claim that people should vote for her because she has lady parts.

John Kasich: Kasich received only 9:00 of time less than any other candidate. Thankfully he laid off the all screaming all the time approach he used in previous debates.  Kasich was strong when he cut off a battle Donald Trump and Jeb Bush admonishing them for “fighting and arguing” instead of uniting people to solve problems. His best moment was near the beginning when he disputed Obama’s priorities, “And when I see they have a climate conference over in Paris, they should have been talking about destroying ISIS because they are involved in virtually every country, you know, across this world.” 

After that early point, Kasich seemed to disappear. I suspect by the time there is another debate, if Kasich is still in the race he will be relegated to the #MyCampaignIsDeadButTooStupidToFallDown debate earlier in the evening.

Rand Paul: Rand Paul is a paradox. No other candidate is as strong a fighter for the Constitution than Rand Paul. On the other hand in a campaign year where terrorism seems to be one of the chief concerns of the country, Paul’s near-isolationist policies are more of a liability. At 9:46 Paul wasn’t given the same chance as some of the other candidates, but perhaps in a foreign policy debate that is a good thing.

Paul wins the award for the lowest nasty blow of the night when he spoke of NJ Gov. Christie and brought up the Bridgegate scandal that Christie was cleared of:

I mean, I think when we think about the judgment of someone who might want World War III, we might think about someone who might shut down a bridge because they don’t like their friends; they don’t want to — you know, they want to (inaudible) a Democrat.

Rand Paul barely made it to the main stage of the CNN debate this time, I predict he will not be on that stage again.


Donald Trump: There are two reasons why Trump is last in this analysis. First because “T” is last in the alphabetical order of the candidates. Second is that every time I criticize “The Donald” his supporters send the most vile comments personal comments and emails.  Sometimes I expect to look out my window and see something like the scene from Frankenstein where the villagers assemble outside the castle holding pitchforks and torches.

So folks get your torches ready because there were both positives and negatives about Trump’s performance last night.

In some ways the billionaire displayed real growth as a candidate. He wasn’t as quick on the random verbal attacks on the other candidates as in earlier debates, which is a good thing.

I happen to agree with Trump’s complaint that many of the questions were designed to contrast the other candidates with Trump’s position (something I complained about during the first debate).

Unlike the earlier debates, Mr. Trump did not try and endlessly interrupt the other candidates–all good. And the fact that he put the 3rd party rumors to bed was very impressive.

On the other hand, continue his growth he needs to lose the narcissistic approach. Beginning with his opening remarks where he referred to himself seven times, almost every time he spoke Donald Trump’s subject was Donald Trump.  He won the verbal exchange with Jeb Bush, with “I’m at 42, and you’re at 3,” but in the end, poll numbers aren’t a reason people should vote for Trump.

While he didn’t interrupt the other candidates nearly as much as previous debates, at times Trump’s body language and facial reactions (such as the one on top of this post) seemed juvenile.  I agree with Brent Bozell who during the debate tweeted:

Screen Shot 2015-12-16 at 11.46.58 AM

Mr. Trump gave a rambling answer to Hugh Hewitt’s question about the nuclear triad was weak. It seemed that he didn’t know what this key element of our nuclear defense was:

Hewitt: What’s your priority among our nuclear triad?

Trump: Well, first of all, I think we need somebody absolutely that we can trust, who is totally responsible; who really knows what he or she is doing. That is so powerful and so important. And one of the things that I’m frankly most proud of is that in 2003, 2004, I was totally against going into Iraq because you’re going to destabilize the Middle East. I called it. I called it very strongly. And it was very important.

But we have to be extremely vigilant and extremely careful when it comes to nuclear. Nuclear changes the whole ball game. Frankly, I would have said get out of Syria; get out — if we didn’t have the power of weaponry today. The power is so massive that we can’t just leave areas that 50 years ago or 75 years ago we wouldn’t care. It was hand-to-hand combat.

The biggest problem this world has today is not President Obama with global warming, which is inconceivable, this is what he’s saying. The biggest problem we have is nuclear — nuclear proliferation and having some maniac, having some madman go out and get a nuclear weapon. That’s in my opinion, that is the single biggest problem that our country faces right now.

Even Dr. Carson seemed to know more the triad than “The Donald,” mentioning the need to upgrade the Ohio class fleet as part of his answer.

While the issues with his performance will not damage his standings in the polls, what it may hurt is his standing amongst voters who support other candidates. So as the “also-rans” drop out their voters will gravitate to the non-Trump candidates.

Speaking of the also-rans, the debate needs to be whittled down.  Nine people on a stage is way too much, cheating the voters by giving those most likely to win less time to get their points across.

It’s way past time for the networks to eliminate the early debate. The four men on stage during the first contest on Tuesday had a combined 2.7% support in the RCP national polls and, 1.9% in the New Hampshire polls, and 3% in Iowa. It’s not a matter of trying to stifle competition or debate, it’s that if they haven’t generated support as of yet, it “ain’t gonna happen.” Huckabee and Santorum keep pointing to 2008 and 2012 respectively, however in those years they were the most conservative options to the “establishment” candidates (McCain and Romney). Additionally to steal an analogy from baseball analysts, its not only how many games behind your team is–its also how many you have to pass on the way up. For any of the four also rans to burst into the lead, the nine Republicans in front of them would have to collapse.

Along with those four it’s getting close to quitting time for some of the nine leading candidates. Rand Paul who barely made the prime time debate is also running to retain his Senate seat. Rand and the country would be better served if he concentrated on remaining a strong voice for the Constitution in the Senate.

Gov. Kasich’s time is also up. Another candidate with limited support, the Ohio governor did not help himself yesterday. If he was a true fiscal conservative, Kasich would stop wasting money on a hopeless campaign.

If Fiorina and Christie do not demonstrate growth in the next few weeks, they should be off the main stage in January and out of the race on Feb. 3rd the day after Iowa (and Jeb Bush is close behind them).

The way things look right now the final candidates will be Trump, Cruz, and Rubio and possibly Carson depending if he begins to reverse his slide, and Christie if last night gave him a big jump in New Hampshire.  As of this righting the RCP national average for the top four (Trump, Carson, Rubio, and Carson) aggregates to 73.7%, meaning the remaining nine candidates divvying up the remaining 26.3% average a little less than 3% each.  Unless there is a big bounce off of the CNN contest each of the nine should be pressured to stop sucking up the air time.  IMHO, it’s time to get the debate down to the top candidates so voters can get a clearer vision of where the candidates stand and who to give their vote.

There are many other great write-ups of last night’s debate, two I particularly recommend are “The Latest GOP Debate – Trump still Leads, But This is Starting to Look Like the Cruz/Rubio Show” at Eagle Rising, “Lindsey Graham apologizes to Muslims, says Barack Obama is ‘my president’” at Conservative Firing Line, and my good friend Ed Morrissey’s first hand account at Hot Air (he was at debate) “After the debate: Another view from Las Vegas.”



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