MILWAUKEE, WISCONSIN -- Fox Business Network and the Wall Street Journal delivered a vast improvement over CNBC's widely-pilloried Colorado debacle by focusing on economic issues and policy specifics, while giving the eight participants a fairly wide berth to engage one other at some length. Some thoughts:
Ben Carson and Donald Trump: These frontrunners have commanded roughly 50 percent of the GOP electorate for weeks on end, and I don't see tonight's forum shifting that terrain significantly. Each man played to his brand and core appeal, the efficacy of which has been self-evident. Carson addressed the media-driven controversy over his biography humbly and well, and expounded on several policy proposals in his trademark plain-spoken, understated manner. Trump's tough talk on illegal immigration wasn't a hit with many attendees in the hall (he was booed several times over the course of the evening for criticizing other candidates), but I suspect he benefited from a protracted "amnesty" exchange with John Kasich and Jeb Bush. Sure, both Carson and Trump veered into unresponsive, barely-decipherable pablum on a number of occasions. Ben Carson's answer on Syria and Iraq was especially memorable in that regard. But again, their answers and preparedness on policy seem to matter less to their supporters than what they represent and the feelings they inspire. That dynamic remains intact.
Marco Rubio: The Florida Senator's stock continues to rise, as he consistently distinguishes himself as one of the strongest performers on the debate stage. Tonight's showing seemed a little less sharp than his last few, but it was still solid. While critics are right that some of Rubio's answers seem rehearsed and rehash familiar messages, part of that is just competent politics:
Rubio does repeat himself, but people don’t follow politics like we do. You have to say things over and over to get people to hear it once.— Charles C. W. Cooke (@charlescwcooke) November 11, 2015
One of the most fascinating bits of the debate was the tete-a-tete between Rubio and Rand Paul. Their sparring started over taxes, then spilled into foreign policy. Each man's campaign and supporters declared victory online, and not without reason. Paul reminded libertarian-leaners and non-interventionists that he hasn't lost his mojo, and that he's more than willing to mix it up with his more hawkish colleagues. Rubio cited the federal government's constitutional imperative to defend America's people and interests, and warned against the consequences of receding American leadership in the world. The two Senate freshmen exchanged some serious blows, and each emerged on his feet. Fortunately for Rubio, the Republican base is much more inclined to back his muscular foreign policy posture than not, so that skirmish had a more meaningful upside for him. Paul had his best debate of the cycle so far. His casual but biting fact-check of Donald Trump on trade was brutal, and his contribution on taxes and interest rates were worthwhile. He'll live to fight another day. And despite what some smart people are saying, I didn't see Rubio as scoring a clear win tonight, but his trajectory remains pointed in the right direction.
Ted Cruz: Here's another first-term Senator with an arrow pointing up. A number of his canned jokes and applause lines fell a bit flat in the hall, but Cruz made up for it with an energetic, detail-oriented performance. He was practically champing at the bit to emphatically say "hell no" to future big bank bailouts, after several other candidates waffled. His discussion on this front with John Kasich -- who spoke for too long and complained far too much for a man in eighth place -- had conservatives cheering, while Kasich drew boos. In light of the general consensus that Chris Christie won this evening's undercard debate, might the New Jersey governor jump back onto the main stage and supplant Kasich? Time will tell, but I wouldn't be shocked. By the way, I'm still waiting for someone to mention that Paul and Cruz's tax plans both call for versions of a Value Added Tax, or VAT -- though neither campaign is eager to use that term.
Jeb Bush: The former Florida governor certainly stepped his game up a bit, especially compared to his last outing. But was his noticeable improvement sufficient to jump-start his campaign? Voters will make that determination, of course, but this didn't have the feel of a break out, comeback-sparking performance. Most interesting, perhaps, was his decision not to blast at Marco Rubio, an anticipated confrontation that never materialized. Was that the plan going in, or did Jeb make that call on the fly? His decision to train more of his fire on President Obama and Hillary Clinton was a much safer play. On the other hand, even if it's clearly preferable to incurring damaging headlines, is 'safe and unmemorable' really what Jeb needs? Maybe, if you're biding your time with lots of money in the bank.
Carly Fiorina: Her level of dominance in the first two debates has been basically impossible to replicate, and understandably so. A number of her responses tonight felt like recycled mini-speeches that she planned to deliver regardless of the question asked. Others were magnificent, especially her forceful discussion of negotiating from a position of strength on foreign policy (featuring a dig at Donald Trump that seems less juicy after further inspection), and this important explication:
FINALLY. @CarlyFiorina explains the real root of the financial crisis: Fan & Fred, and bipartisan cronyism. Yes.— Mary Kissel (@marykissel) November 11, 2015
And per usual, Fiorina nailed her closing statement. All in all, tonight was dominated by substance and free-wheeling discussion. The program featured very few explosive, made-for-TV moments -- which will please campaigns that are comfortable with their position in the race, but may concern those candidates in need of a game-changer. The next Republican debate will be held in Las Vegas on December 15, sponsored by CNN and the Salem Radio Network.
UPDATE - Post-game video: