My takeaways in no particular order:
Biggest loser on merits: Kasich. He’s done. He came across angry, condescending, and unprincipled. By the end of the debate he came across as the drunk, obnoxious uncle everyone wishes hadn’t accepted the invitation to Thanksgiving dinner.
Biggest loser politically: Jeb Bush. On the substance, I thought his performance during the first half was the best he’s done. But by the second half he started to fade and grew more incoherent. On several occasions he gave passable answers if you could cut through the word clouds, but then Rubio came in and gave essentially the same answer better, on both substance and style. This was particularly true during the discussion of the bank bailouts. More than anything, Bush needed to outshine Rubio and lay the groundwork for a “Bush comeback” narrative. He simply didn’t do that. He didn’t do what he needed to do stop the slide of donors and voters to Rubio.
The winners are a broader bunch. Rubio was definitely one of them, for the reasons I stated above (he was also hugely lucky in staying out of the immigration fight on amnesty). Cruz also had a great night. He solidified his position as the credible “outsider” candidate who can go all the way. He also jointed Kasich on the question of the bank bailouts (though he might have hurt himself with Wall Street donors).
One other point about both Cruz and Rubio. During the discussions of their tax plans and national defense, they both tailored their answers in ways that will play well in both Iowa and New Hampshire.
I thought Carly Fiorina had some of the best answers of the night. But she didn’t shine the way she has in past debates, in part because her competitors were so much better.
Ben Carson also came out a winner, at least when measured against the expectations working against him. His closing answer was the best of the night. On the substance, I think he was often weak. But he didn’t do anything to lose the support of the people who are for him, and probably won a few more supporters as well.
You could say pretty much the same thing about Trump, though he had more bad moments than Carson did. But he has definitely become a better candidate, and he’s still the best at the body language of these debates. His “Let Jeb speak” moment was a very unsubtle way of declaring he was the guy in charge on the stage. So was his peacemaking bit about how all the tax plans are good. Still, I don’t think he gave anyone who’s opposed to him (like me) a reason to change their mind.
Rand Paul had a good night, but it doesn’t matter. His argument that spending on the military is “liberal” just doesn’t play. His bit on income inequality being highest in Democratic cities and states was great. In the undercard debate, I thought Christie was the winner and I still think he’s got a non-trivial chance to do very well in New Hampshire.
One last huge winner: Fox Business. This was the best debate of them all. One can almost hear the forehead slapping at CNBC. “Oh that’s how it’s done.”