Tonight’s debate: more of the same but with a key difference

In a sense, tonight’s debate was more of the same. Once again, Marco Rubio, Ted Cruz, and Chris Christie excelled. Carly Fiorina was strong for the most part. Rand Paul defended his libertarian views well. Jeb Bush couldn’t quite kill, or even much injure, the Great White Whale.

The Great White Whale spouted plenty of nonsense, but who cares, right? John Kasich was John Kasich. Ben Carson was again the least impressive of the lot from a debating standpoint.

But something new and important happened tonight: Cruz and Rubio, two of the best three debaters in the field, debated each other on national security and immigration.

Who won? I thought Rubio had the better of it on national security (but keep in mind that I agree with Rubio’s position) and that Cruz had the better of it on immigration (but keep in mind that I prefer Cruz’s record on this subject).

Overall, I give the advantage to Cruz for this reason: among Republican voters, the unpopularity of Rubio’s collaboration with Chuck Schumer and the rest of the immigration reform gang exceeds the unpopularity of Cruz’s softness on data collection.

Where does the race go from here? My guess is that Carson will continue slowly to fade, which will mainly benefit Cruz. Bush won’t make headway and will have to consider dropping out.

Fiorina won’t make headway and will have to be content with putting herself into contention for the vice presidential nomination (if Trump isn’t the nominee). Kasich won’t make headway but may continue to think he can catch fire in New Hampshire. Paul will make only a little headway but may stick around so he can continue to voice his views on foreign policy.

Chris Christie will continue his surge in New Hampshire. This will prove extremely disheartening to Bush and Kasich.

Trump will neither gain nor slip in the polls except perhaps in Iowa, where he may continue to slip. But the attacks on him by lesser candidates — he’s “unserious,” he’s the “chaos candidate,” etc. — may reinforce doubts about his fitness for the presidency and these doubts may eventually come more to the fore. That’s my hope, anyway.

Cruz probably will continue his rise. Rubio scored some points at his expense but not enough to slow the Texan down, I’m guessing.

Rubio will probably stay about where he is in the preference polls, with all of his good debating undermined by the unpopularity of his 2013 position on immigration (how I wish he had heeded all of the warnings from conservatives back then). But the hits he’s now taking on immigration may hurt Rubio’s favorability-unfavorability split. On the other hand, the establishment may become more convinced after tonight that Rubio is the candidate it needs to rally around.

Or so it says here.

I’ll be more specific about some of what happened tonight in subsequent posts.