I suspect that it’s “as you were” after tonight’s debate. In other words, not much about the race is likely to change, with the possible exception that Jeb Bush may be finished.
Let’s do a candidate by candidate analysis.
Donald Trump caught a “yuge” break because his first major topic (after a few words on the minimum wage) was immigration. This is the issue that helped propel him to the top, and he wins anytime he talks forcefully about it.
As the debate wore on, Trump had a few bad moments. He sounded sexist when he complained about Carly Fioina always interrupting. And when he bragged about getting to know Putin via their appearance on 60 minutes, Carly zinged him by saying that her contact with the Russian leader extends beyond seeing him in the green room for a show.
Just as Trump wins whenever he talks about immigration, I think he loses whenever he talks about Putin.
But this was late in the debate when many viewers surely had signed off. I think the lasting impression of Trump will be his riff on immigration, which will stand him in good stead.
Ben Carson was likeable and funny, which are the qualities that propelled him into the top tier. His substantive answers were okay — certainly no worse than in the other debates. He should come out of tonight’s event in good shape.
Marco Rubio’s oratory soared tonight. As the debate went on, however, it became clear that he was wedging sound bites from stump speeches into his answrs, so his oratory began to seem canned, and may have worn thin on some viewers. Like Trump, however, he made a strong first impression. His run of impressive debate performances continues.
Ditto, Ted Cruz. Unlike Rubio, he’s becoming less programmed as the debating season progresses. He did nothing to hurt his standing tonight, and may marginally have improved it.
Not so with Jeb Bush, I suspect. Trump’s good luck was Bush’s misfortune. Needing to come out of the blocks strongly, he found himself sticking up for illegal immigrants early on, arguing that deporting them is un-American.
Whatever one’s view on this question, his pitch was not the ideal way to boost his poll numbers.
Later on, Bush fluffed a few lines. He aborted a riff on Washington, Iowa vs. Washington D.C. and he referred to “moderate Islamists,” if I heard him correctly.
These minor gaffes would be meaningless if Bush weren’t struggling. A front-runner could afford this performance. I’m not sure Bush can.
Carly Fiorina had some very strong moments in the second half of the debate. As in the second debate (her first on the big stage) she took on Trump successfully. As in the aftermath of the second debate, this should help her.
John Kasich annoyingly kept demanding speaking time. He used some of it to remind everyone that he’s the least conservative candidate in the field.
If Bush drops out, maybe Kasich gets a portion of that support. More likely, it will be divided between Rubio and Chris Christie (assuming he hangs in) who reportedly had a good night in the undercard debate.
Rand Paul got his libertarian mojo back tonight by arguing against an interventionist foreign policy. This should help keep him on the big stage for future debates if he decides to continue his run. If he drops out, he leaves on a high note by his reckoning.
As I said, don’t expect much reshuffling based on what happened tonight.