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Megyn Kelly kicked off  last night’s Fox debate by inviting Sen. Ted Cruz (R-TX) to “address the elephant not in the room,” asking him what message Trump’s absence sent to Iowa voters. Cruz’s answer may have been his best moment of the night:

I’m a maniac and everyone on this stage is stupid, fat and ugly, and Ben you’re a terrible surgeon. Now that we’ve got the Donald Trump portion out of the way…

In the annuls of political history last night’s Fox debate will forever be known as the one that Trump boycotted and perhaps the one that Marco Rubio won big. But we will get to that in a moment.

This debate was much different than the previous six in that as Cruz put it, the Trump portion was out of the way.  It was substantive and minus the childish personal attacks/name calling that happens when “The Donald” is in the room.

The biggest winners of the debate were, Marco Rubio, Rand Paul, Jeb Bush and Donald Trump. Losers were Ted Cruz, Ben Carson, and Donald Trump (yes I meant to have him on both lists). Having their moments were Chris Christie and John Kasich.

On the undercard Carley Fiorina was the winner, but it was by process of elimination Rick Santorum screamed, Mike Huckabee was non existent, and Jim Gilmore–well along with being whiney and annoying, Gilmore started out the debate by saying he really doesn’t care about Iowa he was there to round up votes for New Hampshire. He is not only a debate loser but he seemed like an all-around loser.

Also winning the debate were the three Fox News moderator, Bret Baier, Chris Wallace, and Megyn Kelly, their questions were tough, but fair (Kelly’s was the toughest).

If you wish to read the all the answers, a full transcript of the main stage debate is posted here.

Lets go candidate by candidate in the main-stage debate (in alphabetical order):

Jeb Bush : This was Jeb Bush’s best debate, possibly because Trump, who build his campaign on personal attacks of Jeb Bush wasn’t there.  The former Florida Governor lost the “deer in the headlights” look he displayed in previous debates.  Jeb also got the third most talking time (9:24) which was still four minutes behind the top two (Cruz and Rubio).

Bush got to start the debate by addressing the “establishment” issue:

I kind of miss Donald Trump. He was a little teddy bear to me. We always had such a loving relationship in these debates and in between and the tweets. I kind of miss him. I wish he was here. Everybody else was in the witness protection program when I went after him on behalf of what the Republican cause should be: conservative principles, believing in limited government, believing in accountability. Leading by fixing the things that are broken.

Look, I am in the establishment because my dad, the greatest man alive was president of the United States and my brother, who I adore as well as fantastic brother was president. Fine, I’ll take it. I guess I’m part of the establishment Barbara Bush is my mom. I’ll take that, too.

He also had a good exchange with Rubio about immigration, trying to nail him on his support of the “gang of eight” immigration bill. Bush however lost that exchange as he supported the bill and later described his plan which seemed like secure the boarder, then amnesty.

Bush did well and even gave a solid answer to the “establishment” question. The problem is his establishment answer would have worked in any other year but this one.  This year the voters are angry at what they believe is the same old politics.  Bush may have picked up a few voters in the Iowa caucuses, and perhaps a few more in New Hampshire, but in the end his last name is Bush and I don’t see him surging in either state.

Dr. Ben Carson : It’s hard to trash Dr. Carson because he’s a good, decent, caring man, but it’s  time to stick a fork in Dr. Carson’s campaign, it’s done. There’s not much to say except he spoke the least amount of time (6:11), and he proved once again the will never be the President of the United States. Ben’s low key approach is simply wrong for a debate, making matters worse his performance seemed flat so it was “wronger” than usual. Dr. Carson’s closing statement, the preamble to the Constitution fell very flat.  The prediction here is that Carson’s support will continue to plummet and if he isn’t out after New Hampshire in a week and a half, he will be on the sidelines after he South Carolina debate the week after.

New Jersey Governor Chris Christie Chris Christie had a good debate, but he wasn’t as memorable as some of the other candidates. He spoke for only 8:22 which put him 5th of the 7th candidates:  He showed himself to be strong on terror, and did a great  job attacking Hillary Clinton.

The fact is what we need is someone on that stage who has been tested, who has been through it, who has made decisions, who has sit  in the chair of consequence and can prosecute the case against Hillary Clinton on that stage, and that is exactly what I am ready to do (…) The days of public housing for the Clinton’s are over.

Perhaps his best moment however, was an exchange with Bret Baier that had to score points with the Evangelical Iowa crowd.

Baier: Governor Christie, you talk a lot about entitlement reform and you say that that’s where the federal government can get savings needed to balance the budget. But can you name even one thing that the federal government does now that it should not do at all?

Christie: Yes. You want one?

Baier: I want one. Yes.

Christie: How about one that I’ve done in New Jersey for the last six years. That’s get rid of Planned Parenthood funding from the United States of America

Baier: Anything bigger than that?

Christie: Bigger than that? Let me tell you something, when you see thousands upon thousands upon thousands of children being murdered in the womb, I can’t think of anything better than that.

Christie may have picked up some Iowa support, but most probably most of the support he picked up will be seen in New Hampshire the week after.

Texas Senator Ted Cruz : Cruz may be the best pure debater in the group. But he wasn’t at his best last night. Granted as the #2 rated candidate going in to the debate and the leading candidate wasn’t there, Cruz had a target on his back, but he seemed to make unforced errors.  He started strong with his opening lines posted above, but his exchange with Chris Wallace about whether he should be able to respond to another candidate’s answer seemed whiney, and his joke about walking out fell very flat. In fact most people I spoke to weren’t sure it was a joke.

It started when Chris Wallace asked Chris Christie,  you have compared both Senators Cruz and Rubio to Barack Obama, saying that we cannot afford another inexperienced President. You’ve also said that Senator Cruz’s vote to curtail the NSA surveillance program made America less safe. Is either of them ready to be Commander in Chief?”

In his answer Christie did not mention Cruz. But the Texas senator demanded time to respond:

Wallace: Governor Bush…

Cruz: Chris? Chris I was mentioned in that question.

Wallace: No, you weren’t. Your name wasn’t mentioned, Ted.

Cruz: … Actually, I was…

Wallace: … I don’t think that your name was mentioned…

Cruz: … Chris, your questions that you…

Wallace: … Sir, I think — I think the question was…

Cruz: … What was your question…

Wallace: … It’s not my question that you get a chance to respond to, it’s his answer. You don’t get 30 seconds to respond to me…

Cruz: … Your question was you have disagreed…

(audience booed)

Wallace: … You don’t get 30 seconds to respond to me…

Cruz: … (inaudible) opening statement.

Wallace: … If I could go on. Sir, I know you like to argue about the rules, but we’re going to conduct a debate… … Governor Bush…

Cruz: … This entire question was an attack, but that’s (inaudible)

Cruz didn’t come off well in that exchange and made it worse when he finally had a chance to answer a different question:

Wallace: Senator Cruz, now you get a chance to respond.

Cruz:  Chris, I would note that that the last four questions have been, “Rand, please attack Ted. Marco, please attack Ted. Chris, please attack Ted. Jeb, please attack Ted…”

(audience booed)

Cruz: Let me just say this…

Wallace: … It is a debate, sir.

Cruz:… Well, no, no. A debate actually is a policy issue, but I will say this. Gosh, if you guys ask one more mean question I may have to leave the stage.

Cruz wasn’t totally wrong, but his leave the stage line which was a joke, didn’t really sound like a joke, and may have made him look a bit childish.

Also hurting the Texas senator was the Fox News use of video which showcased possible Cruz immigration flip flops. Cruz had to explain away an amendment that would have granted illegal immigrants legal status. The video and Cruz’s answer opened him up to immigration attacks by almost every other candidate.

On the bright side, Ted Cruz received far more time in the debate than any other candidate but Rubio (13: 11).

Cruz’s Iowa support was declining before this debate, and his performance did nothing to arrest that decline.

Ohio Governor John Kasich : Kasich’s answers were not intended for the Iowa audience as much as they were meant for New Hampshire where he has been rising in the polls and now according to the RCP average sits at number two (but still almost 19% behind Trump. Last night Kasich  preached reform, balancing budgets, an optimistic attitude and the need “to come together as a country.” His “moderate/conservative message was better tailored for the voters-can-crossover independent NH voters. Surprising however, was that Kasich did not attack the other candidates as much as has he did during other debates. Kasich did will but not as well as he could have.  Kasich spoke for 8:52 which placed him at 4th out of the seven candidates.

Kentucky Senator Rand Paul : This was Rand Paul’s best debate so far aided by the fact that in the best “Paul tradition” his team was able load the audience with a very vocal group of supporters. With Trump gone, Paul was able to provide his libertarian perspective without any Trump attacks . His answers on domestic issues such as states’ rights, government spending, and 4th Amendment privacy may have won over some new supporters. However, with voters increasingly worried about the war on terror, his foreign policy responses may have turned off as many voters as his domestic policies lured. Rand Paul spoke for 7:56, the only one who spoke less was Ben Carson.

The night belonged to Florida Senator Marco Rubio : Rubio was forceful, passionate and at times owned the debate. Although he barely survived the immigration question he dominated may of the others.  Rubio spoke the most (13:31) but didn’t seem as if he was interrupting to do it. And he even found ways to broaden his appeal to evangelicals.

When he was asked about being on a Time Magazine cover with the caption “The Republican’s Savior,” Rubio answered”

Well, let me be clear about one thing, there’s only one savior and it’s not me. It’s Jesus Christ who came down to earth and died for our sins.

And later he said:

Because in the end, my goal is not simply to live on this earth for 80 years, but to live an eternity with my creator. And I will always allow my faith to influence everything I do.

During the immigration part of the debate Rubio delivered what I believe was the harshest attack on Ted Cruz:

This is the lie that Ted’s campaign is built on, and Rand touched upon it — that he’s the most conservative guy, and everyone else is a — you know, everyone else is a rhino.

The truth is, Ted, throughout this campaign, you’ve been willing to say or do anything in order to get votes. Ted, you worked for George W. Bush’s campaign…

You — you — you helped design George W. Bush’s — you helped design George W. Bush’s immigration policy. And then, when you got to the Senate, you did an interview with CBS News — I (ph) wasn’t even part of the video — where you said, on the issue of people that are here illegally, “we can reach a compromise.”

And then in the committee, you said, “I want to bring people out of the shadows.”

Now you want to trump Trump on immigration. But you can’t — we’re not gonna beat Hillary Clinton with someone who’s willing to say or do anything to win an election.

Ouch that had to hurt, Rubio also warned people twice about Hillary’s promise to look at naming Obama to the Supreme Court.

Do not be surprised if Rubio’s performance raises him in the polls significantly.

Businessman Donald Trump : So the question is did Trump help or hurt himself by boycotting last night’s debate? The answer is, Yes!

Trump helped himself because he was protecting the lead. The debate had no positives for him. Iowa was in four days, and if he screwed up, there would be no chance to recover. That’s the real reason he didn’t show.  On the bad side he gave some of the other candidates the chance to shine and some Iowa voters felt disrespected by his absence.

His alternate event didn’t hurt the Fox Debate as much as he thought.  While Fox’s ratings were much lower than their earlier debate which drew record-breaking rating. On the other hand it did better than the two last debates. While I didn’t watch the Trump event, reports are that it wasn’t very exciting, and many Veterans groups said they would refuse any money raised because they felt that Trump was exploiting them as an excuse to draw attention away from his boycott of the debate.

So what’s next?  Iowa caucuses are Monday. Cruz’s poor performance may have given Iowa to Trump, but am not sure that wouldn’t have happened any way.  Rubio helped himself the most and is now a solid third in Iowa. There is the remote possibly that he even surpasses Cruz in Iowa and moves into second place, and into second place in New Hampshire also.

Look for the “establishment” money to move away from Bush, Christie and Kasich, toward Rubio.

After New Hampshire the week after Iowa, I would look toward Bush, Carson, and possibly Christie from the main stage to drop out, especially if Rubio advances into second place. And from the happy hour debate Huckabee, Santorum and possibly Fiorina to give their goodbyes. As for Gilmore….well who knows, before yesterday most people forgot he was still running (and after yesterday people were asking why).

Now that you’ve read my take, allow me to join me in going over to Hot Air to read Ed Morrissey’s analysis of the debate.  Ed’s debate analyses are the best on the net, next to mine of course. However, in the spirit of honesty my wife ranks Ed’s as slightly better than mine.

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