GOP pundits pick Rubio as debate winner

Getty Images
In a wide-ranging Tuesday night debate in Milwaukee, the top-tier Republicans squared off for a fourth time. The Hill asked seven conservative pundits for their views on the showdown.
 
Here are their thoughts:
 
Bradley A. Blakeman
 
ADVERTISEMENT
Winner: Sen. Marco RubioMarco RubioSenate rivals gear up for debates Rubio: End of Obama's term could be 'most damaging yet' Fifteen years since pivotal executive order, STORM Act could help fight terror finance MORE (Fla.)
 
Why: He is a person of knowledge, compassion and passion. On taxes, he set out a plan that was fair and balanced. He did not back down when challenged on the child tax credit by Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.) and stood on the principle that our children are our greatest asset. On the minimum wage, he said that we should not make humans worth less than machines. On immigration, he said that America is a country of values and that our policies must reflect that. He was strong on national security as well. His message is one that will appeal to Republican primary voters as well as general electorate voters.
 
Blakeman is a professor of public policy, politics and international affairs at Georgetown University and was formerly a senior adviser to President George W. Bush.
 
Ron Bonjean
 
Winners: Retired neurosurgeon Ben Carson, former Hewlett-Packard CEO Carly Fiorina and Rubio
 
Why: It is clear that candidates such as Ohio Gov. John Kasich, Fiorina and Paul see that real estate mogul Donald Trump is peaking and are trying to peel voters from him. Fiorina had the best smack down on Trump over national security and had very strong moments toward the end of the debate.
 
The bar was very low for former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush, and he did indeed have a better debate than previous ones, without any gaffes. However, Bush did not use any opportunities to inject himself into the debate and score major points. But his performance might be enough to let some skeptical donors wait and see.
 
Carson emerged unscathed from the media scrutiny over his autobiography and comments. The other candidates, like Trump, left Carson alone because they learned that they lose support from voters when they attack him.
 
Rubio once again did a solid job with his performance and turned attacks into assets over immigration and national security. Texas Sen. Ted Cruz also did well tonight with smooth answers and positioned himself well to pick up Trump voters should Trump collapse.
 
Lastly, Kasich did not come across well by continually interrupting others and demanding more time. His position on immigration is quite bold and makes sense for general election voters, but it may not go over well with Republican primary voters. He also really turned off Republicans inside the room with his answers regarding the Dodd-Frank Act.
 
Bonjean is a Republican strategist and partner with Rokk Solutions.
 
Former Rep. John LeBoutillier (R-N.Y.)
 
Winner: Carson
 
Why: Here is my rule on how to judge a debate winner and loser. Did a candidate say or do anything that causes his or her own supporters to leave his or her column, and did he or she do anything to earn new supporters he or she didn't have going into the debate?
 
Using that rule, let's look at the candidates.
 
— Carson: did well and will score well; he is going to remain at or near the top for quite a while longer.
— Cruz: held steady; he is not to be overlooked in the long run of this race.
— Fiorina: the most prepared, but talked too much; she disappears after these debates.
— Rubio: had glib, well-crafted lines, almost overly rehearsed; does well in these debates but looks too young and also seems to disappear after each debate.
— Kasich: fidgets too much; is the candidate that non-Republicans like the most; the GOP base doesn't relate to him.
— Trump: was booed when he got into a fight with Kasich; needs to rein in his nasty side as he cannot resist rising to the bait; has no specifics on issues and that will hurt him in the long run.
— Paul: needs to focus on his Senate race.
— Bush: a goner; weak and almost pathetic.
 
LeBoutillier is a former Republican congressman from New York and is the co-host of "Political Insiders" on Fox News Channel.
 
Matt Mackowiak
 
Winners: Cruz, Fiorina and Rubio
 
Why: This was a fascinating and substantive debate, and Fox Business Network deserves great credit. The clear winners were Cruz, Fiorina and Rubio, who were competing at a higher level than anyone else. They have an ability to be substantive, inspirational, clear, confident and positive and smoothly move between the emotions as needed. Bush was most improved. He was good tonight; more confident and aggressive. Carson disappeared for long stretches. Trump was mediocre and again showed little substance. Kasich was hyper and made an absurd comment about personally choosing which depositors should be protected if their bank fails. Paul had some good moments but remains a nonfactor.
 
Mackowiak is a syndicated columnist; an Austin, Texas-based Republican consultant; and a former Capitol Hill and George W. Bush administration aide. He writes for The Hill's Contributors blog.
 
Rick Manning
 
Winners: Cruz, Fiorina and Rubio
 
Why: Cruz, Fiorina and Rubio won, while Kasich's admission that he would abandon any pretense of philosophy in a crisis should knock him out of the race. Cruz won by showing more concern for American workers than the illegal immigrants who are trying to displace them. Fiorina's passionate and knowledgeable defense argument cemented her as commander in chief material, and her attack on the insidious Consumer Financial Protection Bureau was devastatingly on point. As for Rubio, he won on style, but his record in the Senate doesn't match his rhetoric, making it hard to take him seriously. All in all, it was a good night for America as the GOP field once again intelligently discussed solutions to our nation's economic challenges.
 
Manning is a longtime conservative political professional who remains active in his local Republican Party. He writes for The Hill's Contributor's blog.
 
Ford O'Connell
 
Winner: Rubio
 
Why: While I don't think this debate changed much in terms of the overall horse race, Rubio was without question the most substantive while also looking presidential. I suspect this will help Rubio gain greater "insider" traction. Cruz was the runner-up, and Fiorina also had a solid night. Carson might have put the biographical questions to rest, but he raised a bunch of questions about his domestic and foreign policy acumen. Trump and Bush didn't help their causes, but in Trump's case, I am not sure it matters. Paul was an effective martyr at times, but this is just not his cycle. Kasich is literally five minutes from no longer being on the main stage. (Paging New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie to the main stage.)
 
O'Connell is the chairman of CivicForumPAC, worked on John McCain's 2008 presidential campaign and is author of the book "Hail Mary: The 10-Step Playbook for Republican Recovery."
 
Bill Whalen
 
Winner: Sen. Lindsey Graham (S.C.)
 
Why: It was either him or President Teddy Roosevelt, for surviving that gunshot wound back in 1912, not far from the site of Tuesday's festivities. Graham wasn't invited to Milwaukee, meaning he avoided the indignities of the JV debate: being overshadowed (literally) by Christie and competing with former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee for king of cornpone. Like Joe Biden in 2008, Graham's candidacy looks like an escape ladder from Capitol Hill — a soft landing in a new administration. Ideally, as secretary of Defense. It's a Washington insider's game. Thus it mattered little that Graham wasn't at a nothing burger debate or, for that matter, is an afterthought with the attending media.
 
Whalen is a Hoover Institution research fellow.