Everyone will select the Fox Business panel as the most conspicuous winner in the whole night of debates: the contrast with CNBC worked entirely to FBN’s favor. The questions were often tough, but never unfair, insulting or irrelevant.
The biggest gainer among the candidates was, of course, Marco Rubio. As always, he seemed well-prepared, knowledgeable, confident and eloquent. The difference this time came with the intense confrontation between Senator Rubio and Senator Paul over child-friendly tax credits and defense spending–a confrontation that unfolded entirely to Rubio’s advantage. That exchange indicated just how completely Marco Rubio could dominate a debate with Hillary Clinton.
The other candidate who also gave an indication of mastering this difficult format was Carly Fiorina, who reminded everyone why her nomination could be a nightmare for the Clinton campaign. Though she seemed a bit tired, almost weary, in the early stages of the debate she got stronger as the night wore on. While she won’t receive the sort of supercharged boost that she got from the second debate (the first in which she participated) she should succeed in making herself relevant again–perhaps replacing Jeb among the “final five” with a real chance of going all the way. If nothing else, as my 23-year-old son Daniel observed: “She powerfully advanced her campaign for the Vice Presidency.”
Dr. Carson will also benefit from his performance–more energetic, more substantive, better informed than ever before, without losing the aura of a good guy and citizen candidate who is deeply determined to do the right and decent thing. He should succeed in calling a halt to the invidious nit-picking by the mainstream media about irrelevant aspects of his biography. He missed, however, offering the one killer line that could have defused this stupidity even more effectively. Why not question the stubborn media refusal to believe him when he recalls his own past as a troubled kid? Isn’t he more credible on this issue than CNN or Politico? Wouldn’t he know better than skeptical reporters 45 years after the fact about whether he actually had problems controlling his temper?
Ted Cruz had some good lines, as always, but his melodramatic, preachy, stagey delivery undermined him at every turn. He offered oratory more than answers, and bore a particularly unctuous and uncomfortable resemblance to a rising televangelist asking for contributions to his ministry. He squirmed uncomfortably on the issue of abandoning the depositors in a failing big bank–when he could have cited the FDIC, or other existing protections.
Trump came across as surprisingly timid, befuddled, uncertain and unconvincing, seeming no more genuinely impassioned than his listless performance on SNL. No, the debate won’t kill him, but it won’t help him push beyond his current ceiling of 30% support–with the other 70% still deeply determined to resist Trump-mania. It might be a high enough level of support to win some significant primaries, but probably not enough to win the nomination. Did Donald look commanding and tough when he whined about Carly’s “always interrupting people”?
Finally, there’s John Kasich. Obnoxious, incoherent, insufferable. He cast himself as the unwelcome skunk at the garden party, somewhat in the manner of Bobby Jindal in the “Undercard” debate. Only the impenetrable confusion of his performance saved him from total disaster, but he certainly should either join the undercard or the former candidates before the next debate five weeks from now.
In sum, the contours of the rest of the race seem more clear than before: Trump and Carson will hold most of their true believers, with Marco Rubio gaining dramatically (and benefiting the most from Jeb’s inability to “fix it”). Ted Cruz maintains a lane on the outside, at the right edge of the highway, and Fiorina and Christie could survive if they make some polling gains in New Hampshire.
For the rest of the field, time to think about the openings for new celebrity hosts over at Fox News.