Imagine a typical football game, except instead of two teams, there are seven, each playing on the same field at the same time. The teams play by their own set of rules, at times unsure who their principal opponent is supposed to be on any given play.
If it sounds like that would be frustrating to watch, you’re correct. But the metaphor also offers a hint as to what it was like to watch the sixth debate for the leading Republican presidential candidates, featuring seven candidates running in wildly different directions.
Debate analysis is like art – different observers see different things – but here’s how I rank the candidates from last night’s event in South Carolina.
1. Donald Trump had his best debate so far.
For all the talk about his inexperience in politics, we’re occasionally reminded that Trump, the GOP frontrunner, can show excellent political instincts. He buried Ted Cruz on “New York values” by using 9/11 as a cudgel; he turned Nikki Haley’s “anger” rhetoric into a positive; and Trump benefited when his most competitive rivals started tearing each other apart.
2. Ted Cruz remains the most skilled debater in the Republican field.
Pressed early on to defend his eligibility, Cruz skillfully discredited the “birther” line of attack, getting the better of Trump. Towards the end of the debate, the Texan also got the better of Marco Rubio by tying him to the Gang of Eight bill and debunking the notion that ISIS’s existence justifies Rubio’s immigration flip-flop. Were it not for his “New York values” clumsiness, Cruz would have been the night’s biggest winner.
3. Marco Rubio had his worst debate so far.
A month ago, a local reporter in New Hampshire spent some time with Rubio and found “it was like watching a computer algorithm designed to cover talking points. He said a lot, but at the same time said nothing. It was like someone wound him up, pointed him towards the doors and pushed play.” Last night helped prove that reporter correct.
The algorithm clearly has some glitches. On multiple occasions, Rubio repeated talking points, word for word, late in the debate that he’d already used earlier in the debate. At another point, he said, “This president, this president is more interested in funding – less interested in funding the military, than he is in funding planned – he’s more interested in funding Planned Parenthood than he is in funding the military.” Want to try that again? Talking about immigration, Rubio started complaining about Edward Snowden, suggesting there was an error in the senator’s programming.
After Rubio dodged a question on entitlements, Chris Christie said, “You already had your chance, Marco, and you blew it.” That sentence might have been more correct than Christie realized.
4. Everyone else faded into the background.
Polls show only three candidates seriously competing for the nomination, with the rest struggling to keep up, and the same was true of the debate. Jeb Bush had a few decent lines but still appears out of his depth; Christie lied repeatedly and shamelessly; John Kasich seems to slowly be accepting the fact that he won’t be president; and Ben Carson is still Ben Carson.
So where does that leave us? Exactly where the Republican establishment doesn’t want to be: waking up to the realization that the debate didn’t change the dynamic of this race at all. GOP insiders continue to hope, with varying degrees of desperation, that Trump and Cruz will embarrass themselves in one of these debates and implode soon after. The exact opposite is happening.