CHARLESTON, SOUTH CAROLINA - With the important caveat that not a single vote has been cast in any state firmly in place, the 2016 GOP primary increasingly feels like a three-man race. Last night, the trio of candidates at the top of the polls turned in strong performances; each man helped himself while dispensing and absorbing some hard jabs:
(1) Donald Trump: Though his performance was laced with characteristic policy ignorance and general incoherence (his answer on tariffs was especially bad, for instance), Trump had three shining moments that made last night's event a success for him. First, his rejoinder to Ted Cruz's "New York Values" barb -- calling to mind New Yorkers' magnificent response to the horror of 9/11 -- was at once cutting and humanizing. It was delivered with an air of disappointment, blended with the indignance of a man defending the honor of the city he loves. Very savvily played. Later, when moderator Maria Bartiromo asked whether Trump could disentangle himself from and set aside his international business interests in order to prioritize the country's interests as president, Trump gave what struck me as a deeply-felt, authentic answer: Sure, I'm proud of my company, and yes I'm very rich, with financial interests all over the globe. But if I'm president, that all stops. I'm in this for America. The presidency and our nation would be the one and only thing that matters to me. Even as someone who's been very critical and cynical about Trump, I believed him here. A strong moment. Finally, Trump's closing statement actually seemed prepared -- even rehearsed! -- for once. And it was very effective. He spoke of meeting with construction workers who were despondent and angry over the spectacle of Iran capturing and humiliating US sailors this week. In the post-debate spin room, the frontrunner said that "many people" had told him that last night marked his best debate showing of the cycle. Though he's said virtually the exact same thing (always attributed to nameless others) after each and every forum this cycle, he was probably right this time.
(2) Ted Cruz: The Texas Senator dominated the opening portion of the evening, running circles around Trump on the 'natural born citizen' eligibility non-issue. He was obviously and comprehensively prepared for this tete-a-tete, and it showed. Cruz was crisp, factual, and occasionally biting; a memorable, masterful dissection. Up next, they say that in politics, "if you're explaining, you're losing." That's generally true, and I'm quite sure Cruz would have preferred not to have wasted valuable airtime explaining a New York Times story about an improperly-disclosed (but absolutely disclosed) 2012 campaign loan from Goldman Sachs. But he did, and did so clearly and thoroughly -- while landing a few crowd-pleasing anti-Times digs along the way. Overall, the freshman Senator gave strong, detailed answers throughout the evening on a variety of topics. He is a skilled debater. On the whole, I'd say that he and Marco Rubio more or less tied for the win in last night's debate...with Trump in a separate category altogether, as usual. But because Cruz was at his sharpest in the early going -- when he enjoyed lots of talk time, and when the viewing audience was likely largest -- I'd have to say the tie goes to Cruz.
(3) Marco Rubio: The Florida Senator is a smooth, talented communicator and debater. His consistent strength across these debates is no fluke. Perhaps in response to needling from his rivals who've effectively questioned his strength, Rubio's tone and demeanor felt fiercer than usual. He dialed back (but didn't abandon) his signature optimism and sunniness, in favor of a more forceful approach. He scored throughout the proceedings with very good answers on issues ranging from Hillary Clinton's unsuitability for the presidency, to guns, to free trade -- almost always making the most of his strangely limited talk time. On policy, he mixed it up with Cruz on several occasions, getting the better of the VAT tax argument (which I suspect seemed abstruse and dull to many viewers). When challenged on immigration by the moderators late in the debate, Rubio gave his weakest answer of the night. Rather than addressing the substance of the question, he somewhat clumsily pivoted to national security, regurgitating several talking points he'd used earlier. Sensing an opportunity to exploit weakness, Cruz jumped in and pummeled Rubio over the 'Gang of Eight' immigration bill. This seemed to light a fire under the Floridian, who came back at his Texan colleague, guns blazing. Like a prosecutor, he pointedly enumerated a laundry list of Cruz flip-flops on immigration and a host of other issues, concluding, "that is not consistent conservatism. That is political calculation." Cruz replied by sarcastically thanking Rubio for emptying his "oppo-research" playbook in one fell swoop. "It's your record," Rubio shot back. Cold-blooded. The facts will show that most of Rubio's charges were accurate hits. Several are contested. At least one is just unfair. But he hands-down won the exchange, recovering from a notably poor initial answer and turning into a real moment.
The others: The rest of the main stage field had their moments -- some more than others. Chris Christie is quite good in debates and probably drew the most applause of anyone not named Rubio, Cruz or Trump. He should also be commended for his straight talk on the urgent need for entitlement reforms. In his spat with Rubio over his record in New Jersey (during which Rubio seemed tentative and uncomfortable on the attack -- unlike his roasting of Cruz later on), Christie made some assertions that will not be treated favorably by fact-checkers. Jeb Bush did pretty well last night, giving a truly superb answer to a challenging Charleston shooting/gun control question, and building a pragmatic, smart case against Trump's reactionary and counter-productive 'Muslim ban' idea. But it's just so clear that Jeb's temperament, tone, and overall approach is simply a profound mismatch for the Republican electorate's political appetites this cycle. That's not going to change any time soon. Ben Carson is a likable man with a remarkable life story who occasionally provides a funny quip or a flash of insight -- but he and his campaign seem to be melting away before our very eyes. On paper, John Kasich is an ideal candidate, boasting an exceptional resume and hailing from the mother of all swing states. He's been a popular governor in Ohio. He has political chops. But he talks far too much at these things for someone who barely qualifies for the main stage, and is often grating in his message and delivery. For what it's worth, Carly Fiorina "won" the so-called 'undercard' event by outperforming Mike Huckabee and Rick Santorum, but lightening didn't seem to strike twice for the former CEO. The time has arrived, or will soon arrive, to dispense with these "kiddie table" forums altogether. I'll leave you with this:
Trump, on CNN (re: Cruz): "I guess the bromance is over."— Josh Kraushaar (@HotlineJosh) January 15, 2016
In spin room, Trump slams Cruz on NY values, repeats (bogus) birther claims vs. Cruz & comes after Cruz on (mostly bogus) loan issue.— Guy Benson (@guypbenson) January 15, 2016
Strap it in, because the next month is going to get turbulent.