Rubio had the most consistently impressive night. He showed his political skill with the first couple of questions, which were hostile and had him playing defense, but he parried effectively and by the end he had made each one a positive for him. At every opportunity, he brings his answers back to his message of helping Americans struggling in this economy and to Hillary Clinton (he went out of his way to hit her on Benghazi). He knows his brief extremely well and almost always sounds authoritative and well-informed. You have to think after tonight more Republicans are going to realize his potential.
Cruz had the best moment of the night in his Newt Gingrich-style slam of the moderators that he carried off very effectively–perfectly timed and delivered. It will be repeated over and over online and on the radio in the next 48 hours. He faded a bit after that, but he was as fluid as always on everything else and I imagine pleased former Ron Paul voters in Iowa with his answer on the Fed. Tonight will provide more support for the rapidly congealing conventional wisdom that it will end up as a Rubio-Cruz race (caution: the conventional wisdom used to be that only Rubio, Bush or Walker could win the nomination).
Jeb Bush had better batten down for a fierce media down-draft. It’s a sign of where he is in the race that he felt compelled to go after Marco Rubio with the cheap missing-senate-votes attack, and lost the exchange when Rubio correctly pointed out Bush was going after him based on a rather blatant tactical calculation. His best moment of the night was his line about his fantasy football team being 7-0, but then he wandered down a rabbit hole musing about federal regulation of fantasy sports. We’ve had three debates now, and it’s hard to recall one exchange where Bush has clearly won. I’ve known Bush over the years and always though he had a natural sense of authority about him. That is not coming across in this campaign, at all.
Trump didn’t loom as large as in the other debates. He didn’t know his own immigration plan, which isn’t surprising since he has probably not read it. He was at sea on the gun question. But he was often entertaining, especially in the second half.
Ben Carson didn’t speak with much authority on economic issues, although didn’t do anything to hurt himself.
Carly Fiorina was fine, but didn’t stand out the way she did in the first two debates and didn’t have any particularly notable moments.
John Kasich took the typical tack of the candidates at the end of the stage of trying to take on Trump, and led with his chin. Trump hammered him, especially on Lehman Brothers, forcing Kasich to avow that he was a banker and proud of it–not something you expect to hear from a populist governor of a Midwestern state. Kasich gives a sense that he’s desperate to define himself as the Jon Huntsman in the field.
Whereas Bush whiffed on the Fantasy Football question, Chris Christie hit it out of the park (to mix sports metaphors). He is a forceful communicator and if Bush fizzles, he could get some traction.