Who knew a debate without Donald Trump could still be so entertaining. On Thursday night, the top tier (and undercard) Republican 2016 candidates faced off in the shadow of the ubiquitous GOP front-runner, and while they probably did little to blunt his momentum in the early voting states of Iowa and New Hampshire, it was clear the candidates relished their moment to shine.
There was the good, the bad and the Ben Carson. The retired neurosurgeon had a rocky night, to put it generously. Meanwhile, Jeb Bush pushed back against the low energy label and Sens. Marco Rubio and Ted Cruz got into their customary testy exchanges.
But what are people who watched the debate talking about this morning? Here are the debates most head-scratching (and therefore, most memorable) moments:
"Putin is a one-horse country"
Voters who might be perturbed by Carson's lack of foreign policy knowledge and experience probably received little comfort from his word salad response to a question on how to handle Russian aggression abroad and its controversial president Vladimir Putin. Carson said, "I think we ought to give Ukraine offensive weapons and I think we ought to fight them on the economic basis because Putin is a one-horse country: oil and energy." Umm, ok. Later, when pressed by MSNBC's Chris Matthews to explain whether he meant to suggest the U.S. should go to war with Russia, Carson said he hoped the situation would not deteriorate to that point.
Trump is the star
Although Trump famously decided to sit this debate out (citing what he perceives as a bias against his candidacy from the host network, Fox News), he was still mentioned over 25 times by either moderators or the candidates on stage. Cruz opened the debate with one of his world famous imitations, he wanly insulted the other candidates and then declared: "The Donald Trump portion" of the evening was over. Except it wasn't. Besides moving in Trump's direction on a host of domestic and foreign policy issues, candidates like Bush lamented the loss of the "little teddy bear."
Jim Gilmore is still a thing
Better late than never, the former Virginia governor, who's barely registered in the polls or on the public's radar made only his second appearance on the GOP debate stage Thursday at the undercard showdown. In what the Washington Post called the "greatest 45 minutes of Jim Gilmore's life" the longshot candidate was briefly a trending topic, as viewers desperately tried to figure out who he is.
Cruelty towards the Clintons
Carly Fiorina got the ball rolling in the undercard debate, repeating what has become something of a stump speech zinger, that she would have left Bill Clinton for his infidelities, unlike Hillary Clinton did in the '90s. "It wasn't a personal attack," claimed Fiorina, although she failed to explain how ridiculing her Democratic opponent's marriage isn't personal. Sen. Rand Paul picked up the ball and ran with it in the top-tier debate, insisting that if any CEO had an affair with a 21-year-old intern, as former president Clinton, did they would be "fired, never hired again and probably shunned in their community." Curious comments from members of a party that has preached leaving family matters off the table in presidential campaigns.
Cruz gets schooled ... by the moderator
Without Trump to kick around, Sen. Ted Cruz was probably on the receiving end of the most shots fired on Thursday, and he seemed uncomfortable in the hot seat. At one point, Cruz whined that most of the moderator's questions amounted to "attack Ted Cruz" and joking-not-jokingly tried to suggest if the "mean questions" continued he would have to exit the stage. Fox host and debate moderater Chris Wallace shut him down after the Texas lawmaker kept grasping for more airtime. "Sir, I know you like to argue about the rules, but we're going to conduct a debate," Wallace said. Mic dropped.
Carson gets called on
Infamously soft spoken, Carson is the one candidate who almost never fishes for more time to speak. He drew laughs when he was put on the spot to discuss immigration. His response ("Oh great") was all-too-similar to student being unexpectedly subjected to the Socratic method. Still, his rambling answer did produce a gem: "If you've got 10 people coming to your house and you know one of them is a terrorist, you're probably going to keep them all out."
Bush gets self deprecating
Freed from Trump's bullying, Jeb Bush was the most relaxed on stage as he's been since the GOP presidential debates started. Although it may be too little too late to help his polling, Bush scored laughs when he acknowledged the fact that his book "Immigration Wars" is no best-seller. "You can get it at $2.99 on Amazon," he said. "It's affordable for everybody."
Let's go to the videotape
Fox News took a page from "The Daily Show" playbook by airing video of Cruz and Rubio on tape clearly contradicting their own newfound stances on immigration. Neither candidate emerged from their clash on the subject unscathed, each trying to position themselves to the right of the other on a path to citizenship. But in the end, they may have both come across as opportunistic on a subject that has clearly energized the GOP base, for better or worse. Ultimately, Trump may get the last laugh on this one since he appears to have set the parameters by which every candidate has outlined their position.
Rubio vs. Sweden
The would-be establishment darling delivered another one of his uber-polished performances on Thursday, although it'll be curious if he'll ever be asked to back up his claim that President Obama "systematically and habitually violates the constitution." Wouldn't the GOP-controlled Senate, of which Rubio is a part, want to maybe impeach the president then? For now, Rubio has a bigger target in his sights -- Sweden. During the debate he claimed Democratic candidate Sen. Bernie Sanders would make a better president in the Scandinavian country. "We don't want to be Sweden. We want to be the United States of America.," Rubio said. Sounds like a great bumper sticker: Rubio 2016 "We don't want to be Sweden." Coincidentally, Sweden is often ranked among the top countries in the world in terms of overall quality of life and its citizens outrank the U.S. in terms of per capita income.
Instead of giving a standard stump speech in his closing remarks, after asking the audience in Iowa to "think of our founding fathers" Carson earnestly tried to recite the opening words of the Constitution (he flubbed one word, it's "blessings" not "benefits" of liberty). He then added: "Folks, it's not too late. Enough said." It was a very Jimmy McMillan-esque moment, one that might explain why Carson has rapidly descended from potential front-runner to amiable also-ran.