The Venetian Casino in Las Vegas hosted the Republican presidential debate of 2015 and for some of the participants at the “children’s table” matinee and likely at least one of the nine who participated in the main event that debate could have been his last.
Since August of this year the media has tried to accommodate an unprecedented large field of Republican candidates out of fairness while trying to make the debates manageable. The experience proved cumbersome for the moderators, the candidates, and the viewing public.
One of the main challenges was figuring out who should stay on the stage and who shouldn’t be invited due to the effect Donald Trump’s candidacy has had on polling the race, as several high profile Republicans have seen their numbers reduced to “margin of error” level.
The Tuesday night debate at the House of Sheldon Adelson was the final chance for the candidates to make a move before the political conversation gets frozen through the holidays and to sharpen their arguments against key intraparty rivals with the Iowa caucuses just over a month away.
The debate was a tactical draw as no individual candidate stood out, though two testy exchanges dominated the post-debate news cycle.
Rand Paul: the Kentucky libertarian tipped his hand at a rally prior to the debate that he planned on going after his senate colleague Marco Rubio and followed through on the stage. However, Paul couldn’t resist tangling up with “statist adversary” New Jersey governor Chris Christie. Though Paul scored a great line referring to Christie as the “World War 3” candidate, the physician needs to be chopping at Donald Trump’s lead instead of his neighbor at the bottom of the polling barrel. Paul had his best debate yet and came off like his father, which is a good thing when trying to gain traction in the polls.
Carly Fiorina: Made self-reference about the “b-word” and then promptly bickered with the moderators about unfair time allocation while there was plenty of time left in the debate. Fiorina should be credited as the one candidate who put the current situation in Iraq in proper perspective.
Ben Carson: Like Paul, had his best debate performance. Didn’t wander down rhetorical rabbit holes and managed to stick to the topic. Still lacks a forceful presence and showed thin skin when complaining about debate time.
Chris Christie: The New Jersey governor was a former US Attorney right after 9-11. If his goal was ensuring that people were cognizant of this fact, then he succeeded beyond expectations. Christie had good stage presence and delivery though when Paul kneecapped him on the bridge scandal, he had no rejoinder, which isn’t an encouraging sign that the governor has one at all.
John Kasich: The Ohio governor should get credit for not whining about his fellow Republicans for once and instead opened up complaining about just the tone. Amongst primary voters, tone isn’t so much an issue. Also pushes his resume from Congress too much as the general public lacks his own appreciation of having served on the House Armed Services committee. Kasich had a pretty good evening though his “punch Russia in the nose” comment will haunt him if he does indeed breakout in New Hampshire.
Jeb Bush: The ex-Florida governor needed a strong showing and didn’t pull it off. Managed to be a part of the conversation by going after Trump and zinged him with the line about not being able to insult his way into the presidency. However Bush’s delivery was unsteady and bumpy. Who’d have thought W would have been the more eloquent of the Bush kids. Going after Trump could be a tell about the potentially limited lifespan of his campaign. Trump’s voters aren’t his and the Bush clan will be huddling over the holidays to examine if his candidacy is still viable and to redirect his super PAC from promoting his campaign to taking down Trump’s.
Donald Trump: Less bombastic in tone but his reactive facial expressions betray his tongue biting. Will need to provide specifics about his “turning off the internet” idea lest his rivals frame it in the most negative perspective. Trump probably scored points with his mocking comments about Bush’s evaporating candidacy. If his lead gets shaved, it will be by no more than the margin of error. Trump’s commitment to not run third party and his decision to back off his attacks on Cruz were wise.
Marco Rubio: Consistently performs well in the debates. Clearly the most eloquent Republican in the race. Was targeted by rivals as they see the Florida senator emerging as the establishment alternative to Bush and Kasich. For the most part, handled the barbs well but Ted Cruz signaled his intention to clobber him on his Gang of 8 immigration/amnesty involvement. Rubio’s dodge on whether he would support a different form of amnesty later could be a problem down the road.
Ted Cruz: The Texas senator and TEA Party champion has been methodically building his presence in the debates. His exchange with Rubio was the most interesting moment of the debate for Republican activists, underscoring the youth and diversity of the field in stark contrast to the Democrats’ “grumpy old people.” Cruz stayed on message and managed to obfuscate Rubio’s charge that Cruz had a less than pristine record on immigration. Cruz’s problem is that he does not come off as sincere or likable. His debate style is like a “jukebox of mini-speeches” as he plucks a rehearsed response to an anticipated question and seems unable to curtail his remarks to time constraints, as if he could not stop talking once the needle hit the rhetorical track. Arguably the candidate to bet on to win the nomination at this point but questions linger about whether he can win the general election.