The first portion of tonight’s GOP debate, as well as the post-debate coverage, was dominated by the clash between Chris Christie and Marco Rubio. Christie assailed Rubio for not having governing experience and compared him to Barack Obama, who was also a first-term Senator when he ran for president. In addition, Christie criticized Rubio for allegedly relying on 25-second sound bites.
Rubio responded by saying, in effect, that Obama’s problem hasn’t been incompetence or lack of experience. Indeed, he insisted, Obama knows exactly what he’s doing — transforming America internally and weakening it abroad.
When Christie continued to press the attack, Rubio repeated his “Obama knows what he’s doing” line several times. This played into Christie’s hands by seeming to confirm that Rubio relies on sound bites. Christie pointed this out, saying “here it comes, the 25-second sound bite.
What to make of this?
First, I don’t think Christie helped himself. Assuming that Rubio loses support due to the debate, that support isn’t likely to go to Christie, who came off as nasty and at times obnoxious tonight, and who has steadily been losing support in New Hampshire. Rather, it is likely to go to other candidates, especially John Kasich, who seems to play well in New Hampshire, who had a good night, and whom Christie praised during the debate.
To the extent that Rubio, doesn’t lose support but has his momentum stopped, the main beneficiary will be Donald Trump, who did pretty well tonight and (with a potentially important exception discussed below) did not draw fire from the other candidates.
Second, Rubio may have known what he was doing when he made the argument that Obama knows what he’s doing. This is a much-debated question among conservatives — namely, whether Obama is incompetent or, instead, is very competently undermining the country as we have known it. (Actually, both can be true — Obama may be incompetent when it comes to performing basic presidential functions, but quite good at implementing his radical agenda).
I tend to agree with Rubio, as do most of the conservatives I pay attention to. Whether this has become a mainstream Republican view is another question.
Third, whatever the validity of Rubio’s point, he erred in repeating several times. As I said, this played into Christie’s narrative that Rubio is canned. Unless Rubio’s spiel works extraordinarily well with focus groups, his repeated reliance on it seems like a definite minus for him.
Fourth, Rubio also struggled when Christie attacked him for not fighting for the Gang of Eight legislation. Rubio basically answered that he got it through the Senate, but it couldn’t pass the House. Therefore, he moved on to a different approach.
It wasn’t the worst response in the world — no worse than answers he’s given when pressed on immigration in other debates. In a normal debate, I don’t think much would be made of it. But following his earlier struggle, this exchange was not good for Rubio.
Fifth, after the first third of the debate, Rubio did extremely well. He spoke eloquently and knowledgeably about every issue he addressed.
He got the better of Martha Raddatz (who seemed determined to debate both Cruz and Rubio) when she took him on regarding how to defeat ISIS. Rubio called for a Sunni coalition; Raddatz said this is what Obama is doing; Rubio countered that Obama can’t get an effective coalition because the Sunnis don’t trust us. He then rattled off the reasons why Sunnis don’t trust Obama.
Rubio also gave a nice answer to the question of what conservatism is. He spoke eloquently about abortion too, but I think his position (no exception for rape and incest) may be too socially conservative for most New Hampshire Republicans and independents. But then, Rubio will probably be happy if he gets just 25 percent of the vote on Tuesday.
Here, then is the big question: How badly, if at all, has Rubio been damaged?
I don’t know. The media is portraying his performance as bordering on the calamitous. I’m not so sure. It seems more likely than not that, at a minimum, Rubio will stall, but will he slide? Maybe. I wouldn’t be surprised if Rubio drops from second place to third or fourth.
At the same time, I wouldn’t be shocked if he continues to advance. In some important ways, he’s a very attractive candidate and he did have some excellent moments.
What about the other candidates? Here’s my take:
Donald Trump had a pretty good night. His answers were a little better than normal and he was rarely under attack.
Jeb Bush did hammer him on eminent domain, though. Trump defended it as necessary to build bridges, highways, and the Keystone Pipeline that conservatives like. But Bush pointed out that Trump used eminent domain for a limo parking lot, not a “public purpose.” When Trump said that Bush is trying to be a tough guy tonight, Bush asked what’s so tough about taking an old woman’s property.
Still, if Rubio had a bad night, that means Trump probably had a good one.
Ted Cruz was mostly in the background tonight. He played into Trump’s hands when, at the outset, he backed away from saying (as he has said recently) that Trump doesn’t have the temperament to be president. This enabled Trump to say, in effect, see how I’m able to get people to back down; I’ll put this to work for the country as president.
Cruz took a few hits for his campaign’s decision to tell Iowans that Ben Carson was leaving the race. But overall, it was basically a neutral night for Cruz, I think.
Ben Carson again got the short stick from the moderators. It seemed like there were long stretches when he was frozen out. When he did speak, his answers were usually mediocre, with a few splashes of his trademark good humor.
Jeb Bush did well tonight, and not only on eminent domain with Trump. But we may be past the point where a good debate performance helps Bush much.
Will Bush be viable if he finishes behind Trump, Kasich, and one or both of Rubio and Cruz? We may soon find out.
John Kasich had a very good night, I think. His moderate, non-angry, can-do persona seems to work well in New Hampshire — well enough, in any case, to give him hope of obtaining, say, 20 percent support. Kasich played the role better tonight than he has in the past. He was more eloquent and less choppy. The fact that Christie praised him certainly didn’t hurt.
I’ve already expressed my doubt that Chris Christie helped himself tonight. He acted as if he is competing only with Rubio. A more realistic assumption is that he’s competing mainly with Kasich and Bush to be the last governor standing in a four man race. In fact he has said that this is his short-term goal.
I doubt that he will meet this goal. I suspect that, instead, he will be next governor out.
If so, Marco Rubio won’t mind one bit.
JOHN adds: It wasn’t a good night for Rubio, but three minutes don’t make a campaign. Ronald Reagan had at least one bad debate performance, now little remembered, and bounced back. Who knows? A year from now, last night’s debate may be recalled as the time when Chris Christie blew his chance to be Attorney General in the Rubio administration. We will have a better idea how important last night’s debate was, and in which directions, when the New Hampshire votes have been counted. But one way or another, the campaign season will be going on, and remaining competitive, for quite a while.