MANCHESTER, NH-- In desperate need of a strong showing in New Hampshire, three Republican governors stepped up and won tonight's debate. Jeb Bush, Chris Christie and John Kasich all turned in outstanding performances, which may disrupt the state of play ahead of Tuesday's votes. In a cycle that has been notably unkind to governors, these chief executives finally broke through. Marco Rubio, surging out of Iowa, endured a brutal opening segment, getting sliced and diced by Christie. The New Jerseyan attacked Rubio as scripted and untested, which Rubio parried well at first, but then proceeded to repeat almost the same verbatim defense of himself as Christie poked and prodded. With each similar Rubio response, Christie urged the audience to take note of how the Floridian was confirming the knock the governor was advancing. This was Christie the prosecutor, puncturing a reluctant witness on the stand:
A cringeworthy stretch for Rubio. Let's see if he suffers because of it. I should add that Rubio rebounded quite well later in the program, offering excellent and detailed answers on a host of questions -- particularly in exchanges on ISIS and abortion. But the fact that Rubio wasn't prepared to go several rounds with Christie, after a week of Christie telegraphing those very attacks, is mystifying. It was as if Rubio was ready to go toe-to-toe with Bush (over attacks that never came), and hadn't anticipated Christie's intense barrage. A big miscalculation. The Florida Senator can be very agile on his feet as a politician; in those opening minutes, he was not. Ted Cruz also started off a bit shaky, but recovered with a string of characteristically detailed answers across a spectrum of issues. Overall, he felt like less of a factor in this debate than he did in recent forums. His victory dance on beating the ethanol lobby in Iowa was a sweet moment for fans of the free market. Donald Trump, leading in the polls, had a decent night. He offered several good answers (negotiating with terrorists comes to mind), and a few bad ones (he lost the eminent domain battle to Jeb, and was incoherent on foreign policy). If the polls are accurate, Trump remains the odds-on frontrunner heading into Tuesday; a good night for him. Ben Carson overcame the awkward snafu during candidate introductions and did a nice job, connecting with voters on a personal level several times. His response to the Cruz 'rumor' story was handled almost flawlessly -- leading to one of his best moments, and one of Cruz's toughest. Overall, this was an informative and substantive debate, with a special home-team shout-out to Mary Katharine Ham for her superb questioning on healthcare, executive power and abortion. I'll leave you with one X-factor that I believe impacted this debate's "intangibles" and optics:
Previous debate audiences were much more pro-Rubio than this one. Not so tonight, with bigger cheering sections for govs. Impacted optics.— Guy Benson (@guypbenson) February 7, 2016
ABC News reported after the debate that Democrats who were worried about Rubio's post-Iowa ascension were "relieved" by his early struggles. Instead of solidifying his standing with a sharp, poised performance, Rubio stumbled in the opening minutes of the debate. That may be a "teachable moment," but how much will it cost him? And how much did his recovery negate his ugly start? Bottom line: After tonight, Trump's position as the leader in the clubhouse is unchanged -- and the fight over finishing in New Hampshire's top tier may have gotten a lot more interesting.
UPDATE -- Since I gave you video of Rubio getting totally overmatched rhetorically by Christie, here's his A+ answer on the pro-life question:
He also followed-up by stating that although he views all life as sacred, he would sign pro-life legislation with exceptions as president. Also, this analysis might be vindicated in the coming days, but that's not how I watched that back-and-forth in real time. I saw Christie draw political blood:
Rubio survived Christie's brutal assault, b/c Christie's manner so aggressive likely to turn undecideds from him too https://t.co/ayq2jKaamA— Matthew Continetti (@continetti) February 7, 2016