Debate unlikely to change GOP dynamics
© Getty Images

Observations on another evening with the Republican presidential candidates:

Retired neurosurgeon Ben Carson seemed better prepared last night and once again escaped direct challenge from his rivals. But be continues to fade when it comes to substantive policy discussions. He was lucky that no one went after his plans to eliminate charitable and home mortgage tax deductions.


Former Gov. Jeb Bush (Fla.) did better. His answers were more forceful and crisper than in previous debates, but he still fails to drive home memorable themes. Nonetheless, his improved performance helped his campaign live another day. (Sidebar: Anybody notice that he's looking more and more like President Woodrow Wilson?)

Sens. Marco RubioMarco Antonio RubioLiberal think tank: GOP paid parental leave proposals are too narrow GOP senator: 'Outrageous' to say Trump's tweets about Democratic congresswomen are racist House passes bills to boost small business cybersecurity MORE (Fla.) and Ted CruzRafael (Ted) Edward CruzThe Hill's Morning Report - Presented by JUUL Labs - House to vote to condemn Trump tweet Cruz in 2016 said 'something fundamentally wrong' with Christians who back Trump: book Hillicon Valley: Twitter says Trump 'go back' tweet didn't violate rules | Unions back protests targeting Amazon 'Prime Day' | Mnuchin voices 'serious concerns' about Facebook crypto project | Congress mobilizes on cyber threats to electric grid MORE (Texas) both turned in excellent performances, as they did in the previous debates. There is an interesting dynamic developing between the two, with Cruz trying to frame Rubio as the moderate and himself as the genuine conservative. But Rubio bobs and weaves better and presents a friendlier face of conservatism.

Donald TrumpDonald John TrumpEsper sidesteps question on whether he aligns more with Mattis or Trump Warren embraces Thiel label: 'Good' As tensions escalate, US must intensify pressure on Iran and the IAEA MORE was Donald Trump. He had his moments, as usual, but his inability to enlarge his issue repertoire beyond immigration and his ability to cut deals kept him from widening his appeal.

Ohio Gov. John Kasich differentiated himself by stressing practical governance, questioning glib assumptions on tough issues like deportation and Wall Street bailouts. But his jumpiness distracted from his message. 

Former Hewlett-Packard CEO Carly Fiorina held her own, but failed to shine the way she did in the first two debates.

Sen. Rand PaulRandal (Rand) Howard PaulThe buck stops here: How to restore accountability to the federal regulatory system Trump nominees meet fiercest opposition from Warren, Sanders, Gillibrand Lawyer: Flynn will keep cooperating after co-conspirator revelations MORE (Ky.) keeps getting better. His exchange with Rubio on defense spending was one of the best of the evening.

The undercard debate gave New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie a chance to test drive his message on electability (i.e., "I can beat Hillary ClintonHillary Diane Rodham ClintonWhy Trump's bigoted tropes won't work in 2020 The Hill's Morning Report - Presented by JUUL Labs - House to vote to condemn Trump tweet GOP put on the back foot by Trump's race storm MORE") and Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal an opportunity to present his argument that he's the only governor running for president who has actually cut spending. We'll see.

Bottom line? This debate will have little impact on the fundamental dynamics of the GOP nomination race. Some debates just matter less than others. Last night was one of them.

Faucheux is president of the nonpartisan polling firm Clarus Research Group, author of The Debate Book and publisher of Lunchtime Politics, a daily newsletter on polls.