I feel like we’re back in the pre-Iowa period when no one could figure out whether Donald Trump skipping the Iowa debate would hurt him — by the normal rules, of course it would hurt him; by the Trump rules, it wouldn’t make a difference and might even help (by demonstrating strength).
By the normal rules, Trump’s embracing a blood libel about George W. Bush (he knew there were no WMD in Iraq), saying Planned Parenthood does great things, and often swinging wildly and angrily would hurt him a week out from a primary in Bush-friendly, hawkish, socially conservative South Carolina.
But we’ll see. Certainly Trump’s behavior reinforces the idea that he’s disrupter and not just another politician, and Republican voters might not mind so much that one of the candidates is outspokenly anti–Iraq war (even if he takes it too far). Trump continues to be able to interrupt everyone else with impunity and act the Big Man on stage, with no one really able or willing to assert themselves against him.
Jeb is trying the hardest. He continues to improve — he seems a bit more relaxed and authoritative every debate — and did better against Trump than ever before. But some of his strongest moments were defending his family, and although that is honorable, I’m not sure how much that gets him. He has still not figured out how to clearly best Trump, even when he has the better of the argument.
Rubio was very good. A little sharper, a little more conversational. He probably got in more telling jabs against Trump in the Iraq debate than Bush did (although I doubt anyone cares much that Bush was enforcing U.N. resolutions). More importantly for Rubio’s purposes, he clashed with Cruz and showed he could throw punches in real time after the New Hampshire debate. If Rubio had hit back at Chris Christie this way, the trajectory of the race might look different.
Cruz had strong moments, of course, especially on Scalia and the Supreme Court. But it looked like he basically wanted to duck Trump again, which is kind of amazing given that he can’t win South Carolina without Trump getting taken down several notches. In the one exchange with Trump, Cruz seemed to shrink a bit, and it was awkward for him that both Trump and Rubio waved the bloody flag of Ben Carson in Iowa, more or less a non-scandal that is very useful to his opponents.
Kasich continues to get to narrowcast for his audience.