My quick take:
On the one hand, tonight’s CNN debate was among the most substantive debates we’ve seen in a long time. And certainly the most substantive foreign-policy debate I can remember (even though it seemed too narrowly focused on the Middle East at times). Wolf Blitzer, Hugh Hewitt, and Dana Bash all did a very good job.
With the exception of John Kasich, it was clear that pretty much everyone came in with a game plan to make the most of the night. Chris Christie, Rand Paul, Ben Carson, and even Jeb Bush had better performances than their average in the previous debates.
I don’t think there was a single winner. But if you knew nothing about the state of the race, you’d think that Rubio and Cruz were the front-runners.
As for Trump, I think he had one of his best nights and one of his worst. Some of his answers were, as a political matter, very well done. I say “as a political matter” because I often find the substance or syntax of his answers objectionable, but I can see that they work nonetheless. He had two very strong answers. His lament about the wasted money and lives in the Iraq war undoubtedly struck a chord with many – and it was entirely coherent. And his vow to stay in the GOP was about as close as Donald Trump gets to statesmanship.
And some of his answers were mortifyingly awful. His decision to whine about the unfairness of the undercard-debate questions rather than answer the question asked was pathetic. His answer on the nuclear triad was an embarrassment. Yes, yes, lots of people don’t know what the nuclear triad is. But most people aren’t running for president. Moreover, he clearly couldn’t even bother to listen to Hugh Hewitt’s hints about what it was.
Also, dont’ forget that Hewitt asked him about the nuclear triad at great length in August, and he couldn’t answer it then, either. Call me crazy, but someone running for president should know enough about the nuclear triad to at least a fake a plausible response. His refusal to recant or explain his vow to kill the families of terrorists was shameful (and please don’t tell me what he meant to say. He couldn’t explain it. At all.).
I have no idea how this debate will affect the polls. We are heading into the dark side of the moon for politics, as voters cut themselves off from the news to enjoy the Christmas break. So it may be that the biggest effect is a delayed one as people discuss all this around the holiday dinner table.
Still if I had to guess, Cruz continues to widen his lead in Iowa, Christie and Rubio gain a little bit in New Hampshire.
And with that, I’m off to bed. More, I’m sure, in the a.m.