Election 2016: The Winners and Losers of the Third Debate
Another week, another debate.
For the third time the contenders for the Republican presidential nomination trooped diligently on stage for another round. The main stage had the same faces as last time sans Scott Walker, whose campaign gave up the ghost after the last debate.
There were clear winners and losers. Top marks have to go to Marco Rubio and Ted Cruz, who managed to cut distinctive images and dominate key rhetorical territories (the former embodying the dignified Republican establishment and the latter the fiery conservative wing of the party). They showed the greatest poise and clarity of message, and also proved the most adept at turning often pointed questions back on their interrogators. Rubio in particular shone in this regard: when Jeb Bush tried to attack him for not turning up to vote in the Senate, Rubio simply said, “Someone has convinced you that attacking me is going to help you”. Ice cold.
Among the losers was probably Ben Carson. Writing that makes me nervous though, since Carson posted lackadaisical performances in the first two debates and has still managed to climb to poll position with Donald Trump, the persistent frontrunner. I really don’t see what people see in him, so maybe I’m missing something. But given his virtual unwillingness to discuss meaningful policy, or to engage directly with his opponents, I don’t see him winning any new acolytes with that performance. If anything, this should be yet another reminder that he doesn’t belong on the debate stage, let alone in the White House.
Speaking of Donald Trump, he had an okay night. He didn’t mess up. He didn’t thrive on the conflict or land as many zingers as in the past. But he held it together. If his polls improve it will be because Carson’s flock is deserting the sleepy shepherd, not because he did anything particularly worthy.
There was another big loser of the night, and that was Jeb Bush. For weeks his campaign has been flailing wildly as his poll numbers have cratered. He still has a vast war chest, but fewer donors have been willing to pony-up lately (and those who have are looking very nervous these days). It was widely commented beforehand that this debate could be decisive for Jeb’s campaign; if he didn’t perform and show himself to be a real winner then his path to the nomination would start to evaporate. Well, he didn’t score a win. Indeed, he managed to seem even more irrelevant and unsure of himself than in past performances. Jeb still has a large war-chest and a lot of connections and powerful backers, but he may find himself eclipsed by Rubio and Cruz going forward.
Chris Christie also did quite well in the debate. He continued his law and order theme from the last debate effectively, but more importantly he showed some of that classic Christie outrage at the frivolousness of the moderators’ questions. When asked about regulating fantasy football, his head nearly exploded (to much applause). If any of the lower-tier candidates managed to make a breakthrough it was him.
John Kasich, Carly Fiorina, Rand Paul, and Mike Huckabee also attended the debate. Or so I hear.