Six Republicans took the debate stage in South Carolina tonight, and all of them had something on the line. Here are my brief impressions of how each of the candidates did tonight and what tonight’s debate foreshadows for the coming weeks.
Marco Rubio: Redemption
In my post-New Hampshire analysis, I indicated that this debate would be a crucial test for Florida Senator Marco Rubio. After stumbling in last weekend’s debate, Sen. Rubio needed to put out a powerful performance tonight, and he did. His answers were well-spoken and authentic. When a moderator charged his tax plan’s expansion of the child tax credit as being “social engineering,” Rubio vigorously defended his proposal, comparing the child tax credit to the capital write-offs available to businesses and declaring the importance of family to the American economy and society. On immigration, long a sensitive issue for the Florida senator, who backed an unpopular bipartisan immigration reform bill back in 2013, Rubio appeared to get the better of Ted Cruz in a contentious back-and-forth.1
With two primaries coming in the next ten days, Rubio did exactly what he needed to do. He managed to turn in a strong debate performance and escape the specter of his difficult moment in last week’s debate, which none of the other candidates brought up onstage. The political punditry afterward—from FiveThirtyEight to Fox News commentators—was very complimentary of Rubio’s performance as well, confirming my sentiment that Sen. Rubio did in fact make up a lot of lost ground tonight.
Jeb Bush: Strongest performance yet, but impact unclear
Complicating matters for Marco Rubio, however, is Jeb Bush’s strong showing in the debate. Faced with an abysmal showing in Iowa and New Hampshire, Bush’s campaign strategy has shifted from distinguishing his record and experience from those of the rest of the field to framing the race as a binary one between Donald Trump and Gov. Bush, the ostensible “anti-Trump” candidate. Tonight, this strategy succeeded. Bush went after Trump hard tonight, hitting the real estate magnate for his stance on eminent domain and for his personal attacks on Bush and his family. Yet it is unclear just how much Jeb Bush really benefits from landing a few blows on Mr. Trump. Donald Trump supporters come from a vastly different demographic than the one to which Gov. Bush has the greatest appeal, so there is no reason to expect that they will decide to vote for Bush after tonight.2
That said, after a long string of mediocre performances, Jeb Bush looked quite good, and he landed several punches on the GOP’s frontrunner, who heretofore had seemed untouchable. It remains to be seen, however, whether Gov. Bush can parlay his role in tonight’s debate as the anti-Trump attack dog into some momentum as the “anti-Trump” candidate before the South Carolina primary election next Saturday.
Donald Trump: Ugly and unhinged
In the interest of full disclosure, I am no fan of Donald Trump. But throughout this presidential primary process, I have understood the rationale behind his rise. People like the fact that Mr. Trump is self-funded, that he speaks without a filter, and that he is not a politician.
But tonight marked the ugliest display I have ever seen from Mr. Trump. In a series of shocking exchanges with Gov. Bush, Trump asserted that the September 11th attacks were illustrative of the failure of Jeb’s brother, former President George W. Bush, to keep the country safe and claimed, to a deluge of boos, that Bush knowingly lied about the presence of weapons of mass destruction in Iraq in order to justify the 2003 invasion by U.S. forces which precipitated the Iraq War. This talking point, one which not even the Democratic candidates for president have dared to repeat, plays terribly among Republican voters but, more importantly, reflects just how low Mr. Trump is willing to go in order to criticize an opponent who is trailing him by double-digits in national polls.
Trump also took several shots from Ted Cruz on his liberal positions on social issues. Rather than taking the opportunity to clarify his views or refute Sen. Cruz’s points, Mr. Trump responded by calling the Texas senator “the single biggest liar” who is, by his estimation, “probably worse than Jeb Bush.” Taken together with his constant interruption of Cruz and Bush throughout the debate, Trump’s performance tonight was a complete departure from reason and decorum.
Of course, none of the aforementioned is likely to matter to a good percentage of Donald Trump’s supporters; indeed, it will likely only increase the intensity of their support. But every time Trump turns to vitriol in this way, the slice of voters who can see themselves supporting him gets ever smaller, and the ceiling on his poll numbers moves ever lower. In the long-term, moments like those we saw tonight in the South Carolina debate will doom Mr. Trump’s bid for the Republican nomination. Once the race winnows to two, three, or four candidates, Trump will not have a broad enough base of support to overcome more broadly-appealing candidates and produce the victories he needs to capture the GOP nomination.
Ted Cruz: A strong performance to some effect
Texas Senator Ted Cruz had a good night, but he really did not have much on the line. After a long series of consistent debate performances, Sen. Cruz just needed to notch one more, and he did, giving thoughtful responses to a number of questions and smoothly deflecting on others.
Cruz had his best moment when pressing Mr. Trump on his liberal views on abortion, same-sex marriage, and Planned Parenthood funding. An experienced debater and lawyer, Sen. Cruz flustered Mr. Trump, eventually eliciting an awkward statement of support for Planned Parenthood—which “does do wonderful things, but not as it relates to abortion”—from the New York businessman. Ted Cruz stands to benefit the most from Trump’s decline, and criticizing his opponent’s liberal social policy views as he did in tonight’s debate might help him considerably in South Carolina, a state home to a massive contingent of evangelical voters.
John Kasich and Ben Carson: On-message, but absent
Ohio Governor John Kasich has resolved to run a positive presidential campaign, a decision of which he has reminded voters at every turn. Kasich stuck with his campaign message tonight, reiterating his strong job creation and deficit reduction record when attacked by Bush during the debate.
Of course, the perennial problem for positive candidates like Kasich and Dr. Ben Carson is that the rules of the debates do not create much speaking time for them. Since they seldom attack other candidates, they rarely see many attacks themselves, thus losing an important source of speaking time. In spite of this difficulty, Gov. Kasich managed to get across his optimistic message at numerous points throughout the debate, though he faded into the background for most of the night.
On the other hand, Dr. Carson simply disappeared. He had the least talking time of all the candidates, and his answers, though more polished than those we heard in previous debates, did not contribute much substance to the debate. He needed a spectacular performance tonight to break his monopoly on last place, and he did not manage to produce it. As such, I do not expect him to remain in this race beyond South Carolina and Nevada.
Political commentator Charles Krauthammer called the exchange “a draw,” a sentiment which conservative writer Stephen Hayes echoed in his appearance on the Fox News post-debate panel. ^
- From an intuitive standpoint, it is hard to imagine that Mr. Trump, who couches himself as an anti-establishment candidate, would draw much support from those backing one of the most transparently establishment candidates in the GOP race. These statistics, old though they may be, confirm this theory, concluding that “[o]verall, among the top five back in May , Bush was hurt the least and Cruz the most [by Trump’s rise], though all lost votes in the double digits to Trump.”
It is also worth noting that much of Mr. Trump’s support derives from people who generally do not vote. With the colorful businessman out of the race, they would likely not participate at all. ^