We came, we saw, we…wondered how it would go sans Trump. Last night’s GOP Debate was a policy-heavy and substantive debate. There was less chest beating about polls, fewer personal attacks, and I attribute squarely that to the absence of Trump. Here are my three main takeaways:
1. Rand Paul had the best debate yet. His intellect, working knowledge of foreign policy, fiscal policy, and certainly the positions of other candidates, meant he came off as authentic and not over-prepared (and hewing too close to talking points). His closing statement said it all, though. Balancing the budget and getting rid of US debt isn’t a wide enough platform for even the GOP nomination, let alone the General election.
2. Carson had his worst debate yet , which isn’t saying much, unfortunately. The absence of Trump shone an even brighter light on his weaknesses - his under-developed knowledge and “learned by rote” policies and talking points. He seemed surprised when asked a foreign policy question about Estonia, didn’t appear to understand article 5 of NATO, he simply seemed out of his league. And I understand the reason for his closing statement – the idea that we should never forget our founding principles – but his rendition of the Constitution’s preamble looked like just one more thing he had carefully memorized specifically for the debate, only to awkwardly deliver it from the podium.
3. Cruz and Rubio were pretty much even compared to past debates; they always perform well on balance, but last night I think Rubio had the edge. Rubio got the better of Cruz on a number of occasions, but his tone was consistently, and needlessly aggressive. I am convinced I heard a number of talking points, verbatim, from the last debate, and the new focus on his faith (on the debate stage, at least) came off like obvious pandering to Iowa evangelicals. As the front-runner and number one target in Trump’s absence, Cruz was Trump’s proxy, unfortunately for him. He had to defend a lot of attacks, got mired down in arguments with Rubio, so his message was more frustrated than in other debates. His low (and most Trump-like) point, drawing boos, was his threat to leave the stage if more “mean” questions were asked.
What does this mean for Iowa? (remembering that Iowa rarely correctly chooses the party nominee, let alone the President..). Rubio will be hoping he can land a surprise second place, but at this stage I think we’ll see it shake out Cruz – Trump – Rubio. This may have the biggest effect on fourth place. Ben Carson’s running in fourth currently on the back of strong evangelical support. His debate performance may convince caucus-goers that while he’s clearly a dignified man of faith, he’s not cut out to be President. Rand Paul and Jeb Bush have the most to gain if Carson falters.