The final Republican debate before Tuesday’s New Hampshire primary was seen as a moment of do-or-die drama for several candidates. In one exchange in particular, the clash at Saint Anselm University in Manchester lived up to its billing.
Who was celebrating and who was left to lick their wounds?
New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie
A Christie-Marco Rubio clash overshadowed everything else, and the New Jersey governor was the clear victor.
The exchange began when Christie told Rubio that he had never been involved “in a consequential decision where you had to be held accountable.”
Hitting back, Rubio noted the frequent credit downgrades the Garden State has experienced under Christie’s leadership before trying to pivot toward safer ground: He asserted that Republicans were believing in a "fiction” if they assumed President Obama to be incompetent, rather than purposely changing the nature of the United States.
The pugnacious Christie immediately hit back, accusing Rubio of doing “what Washington D.C., does. The drive-by shot…and then the memorized 25-second speech that is exactly what his advisers gave him.”
Inexplicably, Rubio immediately proved Christie’s point by once again repeating the talking point regarding Obama.
“There it is. There it is. The memorized 25-second speech. There it is, everybody,” said Christie.
It was a dismal moment for Rubio — his worst by some margin in any debate so far — and a terrific one for Christie.
The New Jersey governor was impressive throughout the debate, but everything else paled into insignificance beside the Rubio moment.
Whether any of this will save Christie is highly questionable. He is currently polling right at the back of the “establishment” lane in New Hampshire, behind Rubio, Jeb Bush and John Kasich.
But credit where it’s due: He won big on Saturday night.
Ohio Gov. John Kasich
The Ohio governor had his best debate since his debut in his home state last summer
He has been making headway in the polls in New Hampshire, where his appeal as a more moderate Republican is a much better fit with the electorate than it was in Iowa.
He made several appeals explicitly directed at Granite State voters and noted that the 100 town-hall meetings he has held there were “so much more positive” than the GOP debate stage.
Kasich also positioned himself as someone capable of breaking the logjam in Washington, insisting that if he were elected, Americans would have to “buy a seat belt” because of the pace he would set during his first 100 days.
Kasich delivered no single standout moment but it was a very solid performance.
Former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush
The former Florida governor got off to an indifferent start, his tendency toward hesitancy reasserting itself for a while. But he warmed up as time went on, and scored against his old foe Donald Trump with the charge that the business mogul had tried for force an elderly woman to give up an Atlantic City property to make way for “a limousine parking lot for his casinos.”
In general, this debate was more sober-minded than some previous encounters, and that helped Bush, who delivered thoughtful answers on foreign policy and national security.
But he was less assertive than either Christie or Kasich overall. That could be a problem since the trio will be in a fierce battle for moderate GOP voters — and the independents who choose to vote in the Republican primary — on Tuesday.
Businessman Donald Trump
Trump’s appeal is so unconventional that assessing the effectiveness of his debate performances can be a fool’s errand.
He did not seem such a central figure as he has been in several previous clashes, but he delivered his share of memorable remarks.
One came when he pledged to continue to use waterboarding against terrorist suspects were he to become president — adding, with relish, “I’d bring back a hell of a lot worse than waterboarding.”
He drew boos from the auditorium when he first sought to “shush” Jeb Bush on the issue of eminent domain and, immediately afterwards, suggested that the negative reaction had occurred because the audience was largely comprised of “donors, special interests, the people who are putting up the money.”
With the exception of his discomfort on the eminent domain question, Trump suffered no real setbacks, however — and Rubio’s bad night could redound to his advantage on the day of the primary.
Sen. Ted Cruz (Texas)
It was a peculiar night for Cruz: He was characteristically fluent and authoritative in setting out his conservative stall for most of the debate. But the night was bookended by two difficult moments, both related to the controversy over whether his campaign engaged in dirty tricks on the day of the Iowa caucuses by telling caucusgoers that Dr. Ben Carson was on the brink of ending his campaign.
Cruz insists this was an honest mistake, prompted by an erroneous CNN report on the day. But Carson’s attack on him at the start of Saturday’s debate for engaging in “Washington ethics” by which "you do what you need to do in order to win" could hurt, especially given the retired neurosurgeon’s affability.
Trump returned to the same topic in his closing statement — a tactic that left Cruz no time to respond — when he said the Texas senator had won Iowa “because he got Ben Carson’s votes, by the way.”
CNN also responded to Cruz’s attacks, blasting out a statement accusing him of continuing “to knowingly mislead the voters.” Media attacks often help rather than hurt GOP candidates, but this may be a special case, since the fight with CNN serves to give new legs to the underlying story.
Sen. Marco Rubio (Fla.)
The biggest loser, by far, on Saturday night. He was badly wounded in the exchanges with Christie. That fight would matter less if it did not so neatly confirm an existing negative image of Rubio — that his polish wears off if he has to go off-script.
The instant headlines were brutal for Rubio, and he will have plenty more negative coverage to endure on Sunday and perhaps into Monday — the day before New Hampshire’s voters go to the polls.
Rubio did recover his footing a little in the later stages of the debate. But that won’t change the overall assessment that it was a very bad showing, just when a solid performance could have confirmed his status as the only alternative to Trump or Cruz.
Retired neurosurgeon Ben Carson
Carson had some decent moments in this debate, the most effective being his early criticism of Cruz. But he was, once again, invisible for long stretches. Even the debate’s opening was bad for Carson, who appeared confused as to whether he should wait at the edge of the stage or make his way to his podium.
All in all, Carson appears an increasingly irrelevant figure in this race, and the debate only bolstered that impression.