That is what I call a debate. Yes, it did descend into chaos with three fighters talking all over each other but mostly Wolf Blitzer achieved a Herculean effort to keep this chaos in control. Winner Cruz clearly. Strong performance by Rubio as well. Trump is now bleeding but not because he had a bad debate - he did quite well and mostly kept his cool. Its just that Trump is such a flawed candidate, that when expert debaters attack him all day, he will bleed like few have bled after a debate. Yet inspite of that, he will not see much of a loss in support. I think today however, the ceiling came crashing upon Trump’s head. His national polling will not grow past this. Too much of the damage has now been exposed. But equally, Trump has such fiercely loyal and reality-denial followers, that his support will not leak dramatically. Some points down, yes. I think the Republican establishment has now seen their dream ticket, Cruz on top and Rubio as VP. If Cruz can do this to Trump, he is clearly the only one with a real chance in a debate against Hillary. And for once, the irrelevant pair did not lecture the room about being nice and not engaging on the issues. The sooner they have quit the better it is for the remainder of the election cycle. So lets do the grading.
Cruz - A. Ted Cruz hit this one out of the park. Almost flawless debate masterclass by a master debater. A very wide array of methods of attack. The only one to date that got clearly the better of Trump head-on, a very varied range of topics on which to strike Trump. Enough spare power to also hit Rubio occasionally and to advance his own agenda and abilities, plus mention Hillary and Obama occasionally as well. Cruz was in a great mood, just about perfect balance of intentional needling but still appearing serious and mature. He was obviously enjoying himself.
For those into debate technique, Cruz showed us two successful traps, where he goaded Trump to take a position, then Cruz had the killer hit to follow after Trump had just committed to a position. Perfectly executed twice, I sense he tried it a third time but that fizzled. Trump was utterly unaware of what was going on until he had been caught by Cruz. The trap on Trump making deals was one with several impacts that cut Trump deeply. Cruz got Trump to take pride in doing deals: that is what he does, then slam him on it. But not just once, Cruz hit Trump that he’ll make deals to the damage of policies, then also that Trump will do those deals with the Democrats to put a moderate on the Supreme Court and finally on Israel. Bravo Ted. That was a Jedi move. For anyone who sees Hillary for what she is - a master debater - and thus a huge threat in the Autumn, and who may sorely miss Chris Christie (or the early Carly Fiorina) has now finally seen, that Cruz yes is worthy of his reputation. Why were you hiding this Ted? Excellent performance which I grade as a pure A.
Rubio - A-. Marco Rubio had a great night too. He had I believe the most popular line, and to me it seemed genuine spotaneous moment rather than planned prepared attack - when Rubio jumped on Trump saying look, he’s repeating himself.. five times! Yes we can sense the remnants of Rubio’s wounded pride out of the debate just before New Hampshire when Robo-Rubio was revealed but now he had his delightful rebuttal - look, Trump is now the Robodon. Rubio was at his happiest of any debate after that moment and the delight was infectuous.
Rubio was stronger in the earlier part of the debate, he kept a very upbeat positive overall composure but hit Trump hard many times. At times the Cruz-Rubio duo did seem like they had held a tag-team practise, when one didn’t quite damage Trump, the other followed suit and delivered new strikes from a different point of view, again hitting Trump. Rubio was enjoying the gimmick of inviting viewers to go Google things Trump said were not true, giving the search terms and then telling Trump that Twitter is now abuzz with those topics. Towards the end when Cruz was getting only stronger, Rubio faded a bit. I think he was intimidated by the triple-shouting-matches with Trump where Cruz was not. Also Rubio seemed to take it more personally when his own words were thrown at him and he had to defend a flip-flop. Trump and Cruz both sailed easily past those moments knowing they were coming and being prepared for it. So while Rubio had a great night, it wasn’t quite perfect, so I give him the grade of A-.
Trump B. Donald Trump didn’t have a bad night, he was close to losing his cool but he did hold it in, working visibly hard at controlling himself. He was quick to counter-attack but some of his responses were now visibly school-yard nonsense in scale, as pointed out by Cruz and Rubio exactly by his side. He hadn’t experienced this yet where both on his sides attacked him relentlessly all through the debate. Trump still held his ground like a trooper and gave about as hard as he took. I think in the dual matchups, Trump was slightly better than Rubio but then clearly lesser of Cruz. Still, Trump did a very good job, he has a very quick mind, he’s memorized so many effective hits on his main rivals, he is able to think on his feet and while clearly not as well prepared as the others, Trump makes up with it partly by playing the crowd and partly by throwing the others off their balance by speaking over their timing.
Trump suffered severely, however, because this was the first time that ‘the whole story’ was coming out (from a Republican voter’s perspective, even more would be available once it becomes him against Hillary). So while as a debater, he fought back quite well (not well enough, as both Cruz and Rubio were in top form, too much fire from both sides) but the damage to Trump is that the issues are very damaging and were delivered incredibly well. What threw Trump off his game was how much the audience reacted negatively to him. That argument he used before, that its paid lobbyists wasn’t fresh and clever anymore. And Cruz and Rubio were no easy pushovers in clash, like Jeb and Rand. Trump is taking this debating stuff seriously and the effort he put into not taking the bait to lose it on stage was palpable. But even a master debater, if centered by two great speakers in top form that night, hitting contiuously, would leave the stage bruised. Trump was bleeding (from his eyes, and his whatever). But as a debater, he did not fold, I grade him with a B.
Kasich C. John Kasich did his adult in the room schtick. At this point when the audience tasted blood and the stakes were raised with the Supreme Court in play and Israel, and the prospect of sending someone to face Hillary, Kasich is finished as a serious choice. A VP candidate why not but not the guy to be on the top of the ticket. Once the Republican voters were given taste of blood, they now want the Dragonslayer. Sorry Kasich this was not destined to be your year. Please quit immediately after you fail to win any states on March 1. Kasich made a passable effort, I grade him a C.
Carson D. Again Dr Ben Carson didn’t have a career-ending flop but he is totally outclassed and a waste of time to be on that stage. Next debate it should be only the top 3. Carson is barely passing grade at D.
One way to see who is winning and who is losing a debate is to see who is enjoying it and who is suffering. Trump was suffering. Carson and Kasich were frustrated. Rubio and Cruz were clearly enjoing it.
If the second debate had seen Cruz and Rubio in this form, and do only half of the attacks they landed on Trump today - Trump would have been kicked out of the race by now. Then the full story of how he is a closet Democrat and indeed a liberal progressive Socialist one at that - would have prevented so many voters to be taken in by his con artist ploy. Remember the first debate was kind of shadow-boxing but in the second debate several meek attempts were made at Trump from Fiorina to Jeb to Rand to Christie. But Cruz stayed totally out of it and Rubio was only half-heartedly joining. And yet Trump was severely upset and clearly damaged. If Cruz and Rubio had taken that chance seriously, Trump would have quit well before Iowa because he’d have been running somewhere around 5th place at best.
Woulda coulda shoulda. Yeah, now its too late to stop Trump. What Rubio and Cruz can hope to do, is to bleed Trump down so much he might be in the 20s by March 15 when winner-take-all states start, and then, there is a serious chance for one - and an outside chance for both - to pass Trump in delegates. Right now March 1 seems to me, to still mean Trump wins more states than Rubio or Cruz. But this debate should get Cruz to win more than just his home state of Texas (and certainly locked that vote now). Rubio should also do better and pick up something, a state or two. Then the story about Trump is that he is still vulnerable and this can be a race. Had the two Senators punted again today, Trump could sweep the SEC Primary states on March 1 and the race would have been practically over. Both Rubio and Cruz knew what was on the line, it was a do-or-die moment and both survived. Equally Kasich and Carson were not willing to go into the gutter to fight with Trump and they will now exit the race (after March 1 votes are counted).
What a fabulous debate. Honest real clash on real issues between the top 3 candidates. The moderators seemed to have stacked the deck to take on Trump but as Rubio and Cruz were both willing to also go there, that didn’t seem excessive of too biased (it did seem a bit biased yes). Wolf Blitzer inserted him strongly into some moments to end the bickering but he also lost control many times. Of all moderators he had the toughest debate so far, and I cannot fault him. Of the three panelists only CNN’s Dana Bash seemed somewhat intimidated and didn’t handle her parts too well, the others were strong.
Who wins and who loses? Trump’s base will ignore this, it was clearly a set-up and hit-job and they will only rally even more around their luvable racist. I think Trump’s growth will end, he has now seen peak Trump and it will be down hill (in terms of average of national polling via RCP) from here but not below 20% and Trump’s floor could be as high as 25%. And he will fight feverishly to hold onto as much of that support as he can. Still, the damage now has been done and too many intelligent voters see Trump for what he is, and his massive fraud as a ‘conservative’ candidate for the Republican party has been exposed. That is healthy but it probably came too late. Trump is still the front-runner to win the whole nomination race.
Cruz is the big winner, he should now climb to well above the 20% level nationally and could be hitting low 30s. The conservative Southern religious states that Cruz had targeted for March 1 now become viable for him (apart from Texas) and he should pick up several of those but often with very thin margins. He’ll also lose the rest to Trump with only modest margins meaning Cruz will do well in the delegate hunt at this time when delegates are awarded proportionately.
Rubio also had a good night and will see gains. I expect very loud pleading for Kasich to drop out but thats too late for Tuesday. He will drop out on Wednesday I predict, after disasterously bad showing. Carson, another dead man. What I can’t wait for now, is that next Fox debate when we see Megyn Kelly vs Trump 2.0 - now with the echoes of both Rubio and Cruz hitting Trump from both sides. Then Trump will seriously feel like he is fighting a three-way war.