GOP debate winners and losers

The fourth Republican presidential debate on Tuesday night was a less dramatic, more substantive affair than the previous three clashes of the 2016 cycle. Who shone and who wilted under the lights in Milwaukee?

WINNERS

Sens. Marco RubioMarco RubioWar over the estate tax returns Clinton’s strategy: Get under Trump’s skin Rubio, Heck help out at car crash scene MORE (Fla.) and Ted CruzTed CruzThe 'Overton Window' and how Trump won the nomination with it Judge rejects attempt to stop internet oversight transfer Tech groups file court brief opposing internet transition suit MORE (Texas)

On a night without a single standout moment, the polish and poise of the two senators were valuable assets. 

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Rubio is probably the most charismatic figure in this year’s GOP field among those who hold public office. Some of his best moments Tuesday night were on very different topics, including college education and foreign policy.

In the debate’s closing stages, he displayed a light touch when moderator Maria Bartiromo delivered a lengthy and positive summary of Democratic presidential front-runner Hillary ClintonHillary Rodham ClintonWhat will be October’s surprise? Poll: Half of Trump supporters don't trust integrity of election Gingrich: 'No excuse ever' for 3 a.m. tweeting MORE’s resumé, to the consternation of the Republican crowd. Before going on to answer how someone with his relative lack of experience could compete with Clinton, Rubio merely laughed and said wryly that Bartiromo had asked a "great question."

Cruz had delivered an especially strong performance at the previous debate, in Boulder, Colo., on Oct 28, and he kept the momentum going here. His responses on entitlement reform and the need to avoid bailing out the financial system again were fluent and clear. 

Cruz did have an uncharacteristic misstep when, having stated he would get rid of five government agencies, he in fact named only four. Cruz cited the Department of Commerce twice, but his stumble was immeasurably less damaging than then-Texas Gov. Rick Perry’s infamous “oops” moment, on the same subject, in 2012.

Sen. Rand PaulRand PaulHow low is the bar for presidential candidates, anyway? Lawmaker seeks to investigate Obama's foreign tax compliance law Funding bill rejected as shutdown nears MORE (Ky.)

Paul has seemed at best a marginal figure in previous debates, but he came alive in Milwaukee. He hit early on his distrust of the Federal Reserve, an article of faith for the libertarians who backed the presidential bids of his father, former Rep. Ron Paul (R-Texas). 

He also went after Rubio on the Floridian’s plans for an increased tax credit and then expanded that critique to attack his proposals to increase military spending as well. That clash had no clear winner, but Paul held his own. His strong performance will hardly transform him into a front-runner, but the improvement from his previous showings was notable nonetheless.

Fox Business Network

The debate hosts were always likely to avoid the fate of CNBC, which drew heavy criticism after the Colorado debate, with moderators accused of asking “gotcha” questions and adopting a generally querulous tone. By contrast, Tuesday’s debate was smoothly run and substantive, with the three moderators being neither spineless nor gratuitously rude. The ratings have yet to be revealed, but Fox Business will surely win critical praise for how it ran the show.

New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie

After Fox Business decided that only eight contenders would be present on the main stage Tuesday, Christie found himself confined to the undercard debate. If that hurt his pride, it didn’t show. The New Jersey governor was clearly the best performer of the four candidates in the earlier clash, the others being Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal, former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee and former Sen. Rick Santorum (Pa.). In particular, Christie turned Jindal’s attacks on his conservative credentials to his advantage, positioning himself as a would-be uniter of the party and Jindal as a petty divider.

MIXED

Former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush

This was Bush’s best performance in any of the debates so far. Unfortunately for him, that’s a rather low bar.

He did get two effective lines in early, both of which alluded to Clinton. One mocked her sunny assessment of President Obama’s economic record. The other was his insistence that Clinton’s campaign would be “doing high-fives...right now” after listening to Donald TrumpDonald TrumpRestive GOP freshmen eye entitlement reform What will be October’s surprise? Poll: Half of Trump supporters don't trust integrity of election MORE restate his hard line on illegal immigration. 

But there were two big problems for Bush. His performance was marginal for much of the debate — 18 minutes passed at the start before he was asked a question, something he pointed out in a display of assertiveness not seen in the previous debates — and there was no outstanding moment that seemed likely to reinvigorate his ailing campaign.

Retired surgeon Ben Carson

Carson’s low-wattage style has both fans and detractors, but he is clearly sticking with it. His best moment in the debate came early on when he wryly deflected a question about the media coverage he has received in recent weeks. But Carson can also come across as meandering. Additionally, he ruled out raising the minimum wage despite having indicated in May that he supported such a move. That could spark yet another controversy in a campaign that, for all its strengths, doesn’t need any more of them.

Businesswoman Carly Fiorina

It was more of the same from the former Hewlett Packard CEO. She is a very effective communicator who wraps many of her policy positions in the same overarching theme: that vested interests control the political system and that she is the person to take them on. But the suspicion lingers that Fiorina had her moment in the sun after the second GOP debate in September. She has faded since then, and there’s no apparent reason to believe she can reverse that trend.

Businessman Donald Trump

This was the mogul’s weakest performance in any of the four debates. No single disaster befell him, but he had a couple of bad moments. One came when he complained about Fiorina interrupting other candidates, in the process reminding people of a previous uproar over his comments about her appearance. The other came when, asked about the threat from Russia, he delivered an answer that was conspicuously lacking in detail. Still, Trump remains far ahead in the polls, alongside Carson, despite endless predictions of his imminent demise. Don’t be surprised if his poll ratings prove durable one more time.

LOSERS

Ohio Gov. John Kasich

Kasich needed a big night and he got one — but in all the wrong ways. Kasich tried to mix it up with several candidates and almost always emerged the loser. Early on, Trump swatted his attacks aside. Much later, he tangled with Cruz on the wisdom of bailing out troubled banks. At one point during that exchange, Kasich appeared to suggest he could decide who should lose their deposits during a bank failure in a financial crisis. Such moments undercut Kasich’s central claim as a pragmatic executive. It was a very bad night for Kasich, and deeper questions are now likely to be asked about the viability of his candidacy.