Boulder, Colo. — It was a new world order at Wednesday’s Republican presidential debate here in Boulder.
With just three months to go until the first GOP nominating contest, voters are beginning to get serious about making decisions, and candidates could not get by just introducing themselves. At this debate, they had to prove that they deserved to be on everybody’s short list.
For the first time, the outsider candidates — Donald Trump, Carly Fiorina, and Ben Carson — were largely sidelined in favor of people who conventional wisdom would say are the safer bets to win the nomination — specifically, Marco Rubio.
In previous debates, almost all the combat revolved around Donald Trump. His brash style and willingness to level uppercuts at his opponents — both on the stage and off —determined the questions, defined the narrative, and made him the most prominent voice in the debates. But the candidates descended on Boulder as the shape of the race is starting to change. Trump can no longer say he is leading in every single poll in every single state. Ben Carson has slid ahead in Iowa, and is taking up ground in national polls.
Trump put on a solid debate performance, getting into it with John Kasich and taking on the moderators. He landed a couple of solid one-liners. But what stood out was how often the billionaire upstart was not a part of the discussion.
“He’s starting to not monopolize the discussion any more, which is bad for him,” says one GOP strategist.
That meant a lot more oxygen for other candidates.
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Fiorina’s trajectory since the last debate has been a cautionary tale. She emerged from her dominant performance in California powered by rocket fuel. She shot to the top of the polls, and spoke to packed houses in a campaign swing through South Carolina the following week. But the former Hewlett-Packard CEO arrived at Wednesday’s debate having fallen right back to the middle of the polling pack, unable to capitalize on the early buzz.
In Boulder, she rarely engaged with any of the other candidates, and there was no stand-out moment — like her clean hit on Trump in the last debate. Instead, she chose to recite various parts of her stump speech from the stage. And in a field of candidates that had finally decided it was time to mix it up, Fiorina’s performance, though solid, seemed fairly subdued by comparison.
#share#Carson, the new front-runner in the race, standing in the middle of the stage, was also largely absent from the conversation. Though he talked more than he had in previous debates, he stuck with his calm, soft-spoken style, and largely declined to engage. In past debates, Carson often seemed somewhat lost, as if he had wandered onto the stage by mistake and found himself drawn into a discussion of policy. Here, he seemed more prepared, and put on a relatively solid performance — but the bar was not high.
The breakout performance of the night came from Marco Rubio, who emerged from the fray the uncontested winner.
With the outsider candidates somewhat sidelined, other candidates slid in to take their place. The breakout performance of the night came from Marco Rubio, who emerged from the fray the uncontested winner. Rubio has always seemed perfectly positioned to win the nomination on paper, but his middling fundraising numbers and light campaign schedule left some wondering whether there was a reality behind the theory. In Boulder, he showed that there was, turning what should have been a weakness — the fact that he has missed a large number of Senate votes and is often absent from his day job as he pursues a new one — into an asset. When Jeb Bush attacked Rubio, suggesting that perhaps he might do better to resign and let someone else do Floridians’ business in Washington, Rubio parried the attack with ease, and left Bush bloodied.
It was the last time Jeb really entered the fray. He was largely quiet for the rest of the debate, and seemed chastened by an exchange that blew up in his face.
Bush’s campaign is now on deathwatch. It’s rarely a good sign when reporters ask a campaign manager whether their candidate still plans to be in the race by the time of the Iowa caucuses. Already, he has been struggling in the face of sliding poll numbers and a general failure to get traction with voters. Earlier this week, the campaign gathered a group of his top donors in Houston, in part to reassure them that things were not as bad as they seemed.
Wednesday night, it became clear, things are exactly as bad as they seem. A debate on the economy should have been Bush’s moment to shine, an opportunity to show off his depth of knowledge on policy, his ability to talk substance. But the exchange with Rubio was disastrous, and Bush’s performance the rest of the night was low-key. For a time, some even forgot he was on the stage — he had very little speaking time.
Jeb’s lack of enthusiasm was made all the more noticeable by the performance of John Kasich — another wonky, awkward guy who could theoretically be an establishment alternative to Bush, if only he could catch fire. In contrast with Bush, the Kasich who showed up to Boulder was fiery and angry, even when he was reciting parts of his stump speech. He came into the debate looking for a fight, and he got one. From a technical standpoint it was a coup: For a guy stuck on the edge of the stage, the position reserved for the lowest polling candidates, he talked a lot, had a memorable fight with Trump, and left an impression.
Chris Christie, too, put on a solid performance. But the other candidates on the stage were largely wallpaper. Rand Paul’s performance left some Republicans questioning why he was even still in the race. Huckabee, too, was largely forgettable.
Public enemy number one in this debate was not any candidate, but the moderators, whose pointed questions drew cries of foul from various campaigns and from the Republican National Committee.
“CNBC should be ashamed of how this debate was handled,” said RNC chairman Reince Preibus in a statement.
#related#No one on the stage was happy with the moderators — with the exception of the Rubio campaign, which wasn’t complaining about anything by the end of the night. But the candidates that were most successful were able to work the refs. The biggest applause lines of the night were broadsides at the media in general — and the moderators in particular. Ted Cruz got into a shouting match with John Harwood when Harwood tried to cut him off, complaining that he did not actually want his question answered. Rubio, too, used the moderators’ aggressiveness to his advantage, deriving strength from questions about whether he was too young, too inexperienced, or too ambitious.
He certainly didn’t seem lacking for any qualifications on Wednesday, and if that’s the narrative that dominates in the night’s aftermath, it seems likely to persist: The candidates have just two weeks to rest before they reconvene in Milwaukee to do it all over again.
— Alexis Levinson is the senior political reporter for National Review.