After the fireworks at the last debate, Tuesday’s meeting was a friendly walk through the park. Fewer candidates meant more speaking time and more substantive exchanges, but there was no debate-defining moment and no obvious winner. Still, there were the seeds of some larger stories that will follow the field on the trail the next few weeks. Here were three takeaways.
No one blew it
In a word: Meh. Eight Republicans entered the arena in Tuesday’s debate and eight Republicans left more or less in the same shape. Every candidate was able to get their core message out (with the help of some alley-oops from the moderators) and no one committed an obvious blunder or decisively knocked out a rival when they faced off individually.
Of course, for the candidates most desperate for a win, a modest success meant a lot. Kentucky Sen. Rand Paul, for example, easily had his best performance of the campaign: He was able to showcase his non-interventionist take on foreign policy while criticizing Florida Sen. Marco Rubio’s calls for higher military spending, two areas that play well with the libertarians who should form his base. Rubio rebutted Paul just as articulately in ways that surely excited his more traditional Republican backers. Like a lot of the arguments that night, both candidates probably ended it confident that they won. It didn’t hurt that New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, Paul’s primary antagonist, was relegated to the so-called “kids table” debate for lower-polling candidates.
To the extent candidates made mistakes, they were ones thoroughly absorbed by GOP voters already. Front-runner Donald Trump was booed when he condescendingly chastised former Hewlett-Packard CEO Carly Fiorina for interrupting, but it’s nothing he hasn’t heard before.
Jeb Bush improves, but he’s still in trouble
Former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush started the night looking weak by complaining about time, but he soon hit his stride with one of his best moments in the debate when he took on Trump over his plan to deport 11 million undocumented immigrants. Finally, Bush took control of the conversation in a debate and turned it to two of the key arguments underlying his campaign: electability and competence.
“Even having this conversation sends a powerful signal,” Bush said. “They’re doing high fives in the Clinton campaign right now when they hear this, that’s the problem with this. We have to win the presidency and the way you win the presidency is to have practical plans.”
Later he took on Trump again over foreign policy for arguing the U.S. should celebrate Russian President Vladimir Putin propping up Syrian dictator Bashar al-Assad with military support in order to tackle ISIS, saying his rival treated the conflict “like a board game.”
But he was less confident at other points and there were red flags as well. He left Marco Rubio – who is still a massive threat – untouched. Perhaps cowed by a surprise New York Times report Monday on a potential anti-Rubio ad spree by a pro-Bush super PAC, he never made any attempt to criticize him at all. There isn’t another debate until Dec. 15, meaning it will be a long time – perhaps too long – before Bush and the other candidates get a chance to blunt Rubio’s momentum in person.
At least as dangerous, an aggressive John Kasich honed in on his turf with moderate Republicans looking for a reassuring political veteran. As Kasich’s staff were eager to point out afterwards, it was Kasich who went after Trump on immigration first and Kasich warned about the dangers of an inexperienced nominee – lines that Bush could have delivered word for word. Kasich may not be a strong threat to win the nomination himself, but Bush needs him to fade away to free up his pool of voters in crucial New Hampshire.
Ben Carson and Donald Trump run aground on policy
Ben Carson took a softball question on media scrutiny of his biography and handled it just fine. “I have no problem with being vetted, what I do have a problem is being lied about,” Carson said. But once again he seemed lost on policy issues – he wandered around a question on whether he’d break up big banks (he wouldn’t) and a meandering answer on special forces in Syria, which he said he supported in part to “make [ISIS] look like losers.”
He also exposed a surprising new policy position in calling for an end to the mortgage deduction in his tax plan. This is one of the single most popular items in the tax code and even the most conservative candidates have taken care to preserve it in some form. If anyone wants to go after him without ruffling ideological feathers, it’s a slow pitch down the middle.
Likewise Trump seemed fine, if totally predictable, discussing his usual immigration issues. But he also got caught in a surprising blunder on one of his favorite topics – trade. While railing against the Trans-Pacific Partnership, Trump drifted into a rant about China exploiting American negotiators. But, as Paul pointed out, China isn’t part of the deal – in fact, one common argument for the treaty is that it will help corner China by tightening relations with regional allies.
Texas Sen. Ted Cruz’s aides made the case in the spin room that his policy acumen – Cruz looked comfortable as usual – is why he’ll outlast the other insurgents. It’s certainly a skill he has that they don’t and this debate was the latest example.