The Republican candidates sans Donald Trump held their final debate Thursday night before the Iowa caucuses. The elephant in the room was Trump’s absence: would it hurt him? Would it help him?
The answer: both.
Trump made a calculated gamble in ditching the debate. It wasn’t spur of the moment, and it wasn’t an emotional response to Fox News’s supposedly insufferable cruelty. Trump feels that he’s up in Iowa – all the polls say he is – and so he took his poll lead and went home.
That benefitted him because he avoided what was easily the most brutal round of questioning in a Republican debate this entire cycle – he never had to face the video montage of his inconsistent positions, inflammatory statements, and praise of major Democrats. But it could hurt him if Iowans feel insulted that he decided he was too big for the stage.
Only time will tell.
Meanwhile, the debate Trump prayed for in his absence played out in almost textbook fashion. Here, without further ado, are the debate grades.
Ted Cruz: C. Cruz came into the debate as the poll leader on the stage, and the pundit favorite to win Iowa based on turnout projections. That meant he had to appear presidential without appearing aggressive, strong but not petulant.
Early on, he failed at that task. He began with a rather roundabout, poorly-delivered joke about Trump’s absence. It wasn’t his only joke along those lines of the evening – he would later joke about how all the questions were targeting him, and perhaps he ought to leave. Because the joke was delivered with all the timing of a salmon, nobody got the joke – and then Senator Marco Rubio (R-FL) said he’d never leave a debate and got a round of applause. Here’s the rule for having a sense of humor on stage: self-deprecating and passive-aggressive is fine so long as you’re not the frontrunner. Once you’re on top, you can only get laughs by going Big Shot, as Trump has shown.
Cruz seemed to sleepwalk through the early part of the debate – nervous, prepared Cruz was back. But he came alive in an exchange about immigration with Rubio, who simply got clocked over his amnesty support (more on that shortly). Megyn Kelly suggested that Cruz was pro-amnesty too, but that didn’t hold a lot of water – it was a secondary attack after Rubio and Jeb! Bush went after each other.
Cruz had bright moments too. He had a good moment in explaining his Obamacare plan. Cruz’s best moment came on ethanol, when he directly called out the governor of Iowa by refusing to endorse the boondoggle. It was a truly brave moment in a state he probably needs to win. He then concluded with an appeal to Iowans directly – smart, considering he’s spent more time there than any other candidate.
He didn’t hurt himself tonight. But he didn’t help himself either.
Marco Rubio: C. Cruz’s weak night meant that Rubio had a real shot. He didn’t capitalize. He appeared nervous and sweaty much of the debate. He spoke quickly and defensively.
Megyn Kelly absolutely hammered Rubio on his amnesty flip-flop – and incredibly, Rubio still has no good answer for that charge. His strength on the night was his determination to redirect all questions to Hillary Clinton’s incapacity to lead – but Rubio always appears scripted and is not fluid moving from point to point. He repeated Hillary’s endorsement of Obama for the Supreme Court several times, as though that was the chief charge against her. His positive energy seemed to dissipate as the evening went on, and as he fended off attacks from Rand Paul and Chris Christie, among others. As I predicted, Rubio attacked Cruz as willing to do or say anything to gain votes – a foolish play with Trump still in the poll lead. Overall, it wasn’t a good night for Rubio, but he likely didn’t lose whatever standing he has with his followers.
Chris Christie: B. For those of us who have bulled our way through the debates, Christie’s performances grate more each time.
He fibs – Megyn Kelly blew him out of the water after one particularly egregious fib on the San Bernardino shooters and political correctness – and he pulls out all the emotional stops, from 9/11 to the tried-and-true, “I don’t unnerstan’ all these fancy Senators with their fancy talk, I’m jus’ a pore ol’ Governor who gets stuff done.” But for those watching for the first time, this was vintage Christie. He got off several good lines at Hillary’s expense. He got off a great line on defunding Planned Parenthood, saying there was no more important issue. Christie is still waiting in the wings should Rubio drop like a stone in Iowa for some reason.
Jeb!!!!! Bush: B. Bush is awful at this format, but this was his best debate. That’s probably because Donald Trump wasn’t there to face-plant him in one of their patented exchanges:
BUSH: Apologize, Donald.
BUSH: (Sheepishly) Okay.
Without such exchanges, Bush appeared more in control. He even slammed Rubio on his amnesty plans, and appeared to get the best of him. He still did all the things the establishment love and the rest of us hate: he catered to the politically correct question about Islamophobia from the Bernie Sanders supporter and cited his family ties and talked about making Puerto Rico a state, which seems like a grand idea with their massive debt and poverty rates. But he’s busily running ads against Rubio, hoping to drop him low enough that he can take Rubio’s slot in New Hampshire. Unlikely. But as Jim Carrey would say in Dumb and Dumber, there’s a chance.
Rand Paul: A. Rand’s supporters in the hall were irritating; Rand name-checked his anti-Semitic father; Rand made his politically correct libertarian play for minority votes. In other words, he did all the things that I don’t like about him.
He also seemed reasoned, in control, and unleashed the knife when necessary. Rand constantly does the dirty work no one else will do on the stage. He ripped out Rubio’s throat on the Gang of Eight bill, unbidden. He undercut Rubio’s foreign policy in Syria. And he went after Cruz, too, calling him “inauthentic” based on his immigration statements on legalization for illegal immigrants in 2013. He didn’t appear desperate or hyperactive, as he has at past debates. His answer on abortion contained some of the best moral language of the campaign, even if he was unclear about how he’d balance state and federal power. Will it help Rand? Probably not. But his rips on Rubio and Cruz could provide a lift for Trump – or someone else.
Ben Carson: C. Aw, wasn’t he cute? He had his usual charming joke about how he’d been ignored early in the debate. He gave a great answer on fighting political correctness to defeat ISIS. He also said something about Vladimir Putin and a horse, apparently. And most of all, he showed he could memorize the beginning of the Constitution. While we await his rendition of Richard III’s opening monologue breathlessly, this wasn’t a performance that will lift him.
John Kasich: OH GOD NO NOT JOHN KASICH. John Kasich is disastrous. His answer on Medicaid was basically that his expansion of the government program was magnificent and he will reap an unearthly reward for it. He said there was a “Kasich Lane” in the primaries, which makes sense – a Prince of Hope and Peace needs his own lane. He did, however, air-chop phantom fruit like a professional ninja.
Will the debate move the needle? Unlikely. Trump, Cruz and Rubio went in as the top-tier candidates, with Trump and Cruz competing for the win – that’s unlikely to change. Which means that everything is up in the air.
Three days to Iowa.
Ben Shapiro is Senior Editor-At-Large of Breitbart News, Editor-in-Chief of DailyWire.com, and The New York Times bestselling author, most recently, of the book, The People vs. Barack Obama: The Criminal Case Against The Obama Administration (Threshold Editions, June 10, 2014). Follow Ben Shapiro on Twitter @benshapiro.