Everyone knew that Christie was going to come after Rubio hard, and yet Rubio let himself get steamrolled. He either got rattled by the assault or thought he was sticking to his message by bringing it back to the point that Obama’s intentions, not his lack of experience, accounts for the disasters of his administration. Of course, Rubio only validated Christie’s attack on him by seeming so relentlessly scripted. The moment already has dominated the post-debate discussion and will continue to do so–the clips of Rubio saying the same thing is just irresistible to TV producers. What Rubio needed to do more than anything in that moment was show that he could stand up to Christie. There is obviously a risk to Rubio that the exchange will now change the narrative of his candidacy, and if he underperforms in New Hampshire and can’t finish significantly higher than Kasich, Christie, and Bush, it will be an inflection point for his campaign. On the other hand, there’s always the chance that the pundits will obsess on the moment more than voters (Rubio was strong the rest of the debate).
Trump was clearly under-informed, as usual. He lost control of himself a couple of times, and Jeb zinged him on eminent domain. Otherwise, he kept his head down and besides Jeb, no one hit him. In fact, Cruz went out of his way not to follow up on his harsh critiques of him from earlier in the week. Perhaps gravity is dragging Trump down anyway, but there was nothing in this debate that would particularly hurt him (and I imagine his robustly pro-police answer was a winner).
Cruz had a rough first 15 minutes, ducking Donald and trying to extricate himself from the Carson controversy, a little awkwardly. But he was good throughout, if not very memorable besides the powerful personal answer on drug addiction. He presumably wants Trump, not Rubio, to win New Hampshire and, in that respect, had to be very pleased how the night went.
Kasich has been able to narrow-cast for his segment of the electorate in New Hampshire in these debates for a long time now, without anyone targeting him, and tonight was no different, although Christie took a swipe at him. He has to be counted as a winner, and if Rubio slips, has a very good chance to finish second in New Hampshire. Jeb continued to improve. He won his exchange with Trump on eminent domain and was crisper in general, if still not quite a stand-out debater. Christie was an anti-Rubio wrecking ball, but it’s not clear whether he helped himself much.
Finally, it was wonderful to see Mary Katherine Ham, who did a typically classy and effective job.