A good night for Bush and Rubio, if that’s possible

In an earlier post, I wrote at length about what I thought was the big moment of tonight’s debate — Donald Trump’s attack on George W. Bush. I’ll now offer my overall impression of how the various candidates did.

I thought Jeb Bush and Marco Rubio had the best debates. Jeb went toe-to-toe with Trump and was considerably more forceful than in their previous encounters, especially the early ones. Bush also took what appears to be the more popular side on the main issue the two fought about — George W. Bush’s presidency. Nationally, around two-thirds of Republicans view Bush favorably. In South Carolina, I understand that it’s more like four-fifths.

Jeb also clashed with John Kasich, albeit less spectacularly. That one was probably a draw on the merits, but I suspect that Jeb’s position on the subject of the clash — the Medicaid expansion — will sit better than Kasich’s with South Carolina voters.

Rubio had a good night too. He was lucky, I think, that the early topics covered subjects Rubio hasn’t debated before. This enabled him to sound fresh and spontaneous, which he needed to do after the Christie encounter. Is that encounter fully behind him now? I don’t know, but I suspect, at a minimum, it’s receding.

Rubio also benefited from drawing little fire. He had his standard back-and-forth with Ted Cruz about immigration and the Gang of Eight. This is never a good subject for Rubio, in my opinion, but he has survived it before, even when the clash featured more prominently than it did tonight.

The problem for Bush and Rubio is that they may be playing something approaching a zero-sum game. Rubio needs to outdistance Bush in South Carolina by a big enough margin to drive his Florida rival out of the race immediately. Bush needs to show his backers that he can outpoll Rubio in back-to-back primaries.

In this sense, if both had good nights, neither did.

I don’t think Trump had a good night, but the polls suggest he has plenty of margin for error (though this was true in Iowa too, at one point). As I said in my earlier post, Trump’s performance tonight may hurt him down the road. Whether it will hurt him in South Carolina, I don’t know.

Ted Cruz was accused of lying both by Rubio and Trump. The latter was particularly insistent about this. He asserted that Cruz “is the biggest single liar, worse than Jeb.” Horrors! But Cruz benefited from the fact that Ben Carson, whom Trump used as Exhibit A to support his attack on Cruz’s honesty, didn’t join in.

These attacks notwithstanding, Cruz did well, as usual. He has a near lock, I suspect, on the most conservative voters in this primary, a large cohort. I doubt that this lock was broken tonight.

Like Jeb Bush, John Kasich has improved considerably as a debater. He’s got that pragmatic, reasonable, let’s-all-get-along persona nailed down now (though his claim early on that “there won’t be divisions” over Supreme Court nominees “when I’m president” was probably the dumbest thing I heard all night).

This persona isn’t likely to help Kasich much in South Carolina. However, I imagine his eye is on the big Midwestern states. He may have done well enough tonight to keep getting, for the time being, the money necessary to sustain his bid.

Ben Carson had a few good moments, as he usually does. He also seemed rambling, whiny, and slightly off-point at times, as he usually does. The weakest debaters from the early rounds have either exited (e.g. Scott Walker) or improved (Bush and Kasich). Carson seems like the weakest link now.

His exit may be near.