Last night’s CNN/Salem debate was the fifth for the GOP field and the final Republican debate of 2015. Overall, the event was substantive and stayed on the topic assigned: national security. Here’s my recap from the conservative camp, starting with the candidates I think came out on top:
Get the feeling this debate is going to turn into a competition over who promises to sit on the highest throne of terrorist skulls
— Buck Sexton (@BuckSexton) December 16, 2015
Sen. Ted Cruz:
Cruz has been rising lately in the Iowa polls and many expected to see him and Donald Trump go at each other — especially after Trump called Cruz a “maniac” this week. That didn’t happen, even when set up by the moderators. Instead we got a tepid endorsement of Cruz’s temperament by Trump, all while Cruz wore an awkward smile.
What we did get was Cruz going after Marco Rubio, and hard. As a conservative it hurt my heart to see those two go at each other, but as a political junkie it was wonderful to see such an informed exchange between two men who have the chops to speak well on national security issues. Cruz wasn’t always 100 percent honest with his statements, but the average viewer doesn’t know that, so expect Cruz to come away from this debate as the slight winner.
Sen. Marco Rubio:
As with the last few debate, Rubio came off looking and sounding the most presidential. There is an ease to the way he answers difficult questions which makes him seem honest and well-informed, and he always comes across as having given the issues great thought. As usual, he responded to several questions with scripted personal stories and comments about American exceptionalism, but he was able to do so in a way that didn’t come across as canned.
Rubio’s big problem with conservative Republicans will be his stance on immigration, which is one of the more liberal in the current field. But he does a good job of explaining how and why he holds his opinions, which will go a long way with voters — especially the more moderate.
Sen. Rand Paul:
Paul is an unapologetic libertarian and that showed tonight. A few times he called out other candidates, most notably Rubio on his immigration stance and Trump on his unconstitutional proposals. You get the idea that Paul could recite pretty much any portion of the Constitution verbatim at will — he loves it that much.
Really, this debate was between Cruz, Rubio and Paul. You can tell being a senator gives them all an advantage in national security and foreign policy areas. Had Paul had this kind of performance a few months ago, it may have helped his campaign, but at this point I just think it’s too little, too late.
Gov. Jeb Bush:
Believe me, I’m as surprised as you are to see Bush placed this far up. I went in expecting tonight to be the last time we see him on a debate stage — and it still very well may be — but at least he’ll go out on a high note. Bush landed a couple of well-placed jabs at Donald Trump, including calling him the “chaos candidate” (which, for the record, was totally scripted. Within the hour Bush’s campaign was tweeting out links to www.chaoscandidate.com.). Bush came across well-informed on policy issues and only slightly whiny when it came to his exchange with Trump. I’m not sure it’s enough to save his campaign, but it was a surprise performance for the former governor of my home state.
Gov. Chris Christie:
After spending a debate at the JV table, Christie earned a place back in prime time. I’m not positive he showed why tonight though. Christie stayed very on-point to his message, which was, “I have experience doing, these other guys don’t.” Several times he brought up his former experience as a federal prosecutor and his current experience as Governor of New Jersey, as if to say it made him more qualified than the others on the stage. Maybe it does, but he didn’t seem anywhere near as informed on foreign issues as the senators, and his “I’m just a regular guy” shtick is getting old, fast.
I’ll be honest: How this man continues to rise in the polls confounds me. I get how his over-the-top, no-filter speech resonates with some people, but Trump has very limited world knowledge and that is scary for a potential commander-in-chief. On two different occasions during the debate he showed his knowledge to be less than mine on crucial issues — once, when he suggested we shut down parts of the Internet, and the other when he clearly didn’t know what the nuclear triad was — and that scares me. I need my president to know more than I do about basically all the things, and yet again I came away from a debate thinking that The Donald most definitely does not.
Dr. Ben Carson:
Like Trump, Carson was way out of his league on this stage. He clearly had no idea how to respond to some of the questions, at one point even refusing to give an opinion in the surveillance debate. He needs to end his campaign and let the more informed people split both the time he’s getting on stage and his votes. I’ll be surprised to see his campaign last through Iowa.
Fiorina tried unsuccessfully to interject herself into several conversations throughout the night, to no avail. This debate wasn’t what her campaign needed. All I can remember from her performance is that she has a vagina (she manages to remind us of her femaleness at least once each debate) and that she knows people. Fiorina is another one I would expect to see drop out soon after the Iowa caucus, if not before.
Gov. John Kasich:
While Kasich actually espoused Republican ideals during this debate — a refreshing change for him — he still came across as annoying and unlikable. He did a strange thing with his arms and hands most of the night which was both highly amusing and highly distracting. I can only remember two specific things he said all night: that he wants to punch Vladimir Putin in the nose (whaaaaaaat?), and “we must penetrate ISIS” (and that I only remember because it was about the eleventybillionth time “penetrate” was said on stage — weird). I expect to see Kasich’s campaign close soon, although I’ve been saying that for a while and somehow he still keeps ending up on the debate stage.
With this debate we were down to nine. Hopefully by the first debate of 2016 we can pare down the candidates even further — I’d love to see five or fewer standing on the stage. Will it happen? Who knows with this crew. But as the field dwindles down we are able to get a better sense of each of the candidates, which will serve the Republican Party better in the long run.