GOP Debate Night: Candidates Vie for Second

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ABC’s Republican debate got off to an awkward start Saturday night when a technical malfunction left Ben Carson and others stranded in the entranceway, unable to hear their introductions. Once past that snafu, however, the network did an admirable job putting on a smooth, well-paced debate that managed to avoid some of the nonsense that has plagued their competitors.

One improvement: we’ve finally narrowed the field to a manageable size. That gave the moderators the freedom to loosen the reigns a bit and gave the candidates more time to respond.

There was a sense of urgency in the debate, which will be the only one before New Hampshire voters go to the polls. Several of these men – Chris Christie, Jeb Bush, and John Kasich – know that a dismal showing on Tuesday could spell the end for their presidential aspirations. If they can’t dent Marco Rubio’s establishment consolidation now, it’s hard to see how they’ll ever catch up. That urgency was particularly palpable in Christie; the New Jersey governor had Rubio in his sights from the word go.

Outlining the difference between executive leadership and Senate service, Christie said to Rubio: “You have not been involved in a consequential decision where you had to be held accountable.” He hammered the Florida senator for his “truancy” on important votes, accused him of fleeing his own immigration plan, and even took shots at his debate skill.

“There it is,” Christie said after a Rubio retort. “The memorized 25-second speech.”

The audience played a role in changing the tenor of the evening as well. It was a surprisingly pro-Bush crowd – Jeb got some of the night’s biggest reactions for lines that didn’t feel particularly memorable. Both Trump and Rubio were booed when they engaged the former Florida governor directly. Trump actually brought attention to their reaction, claiming that the crowd had been filled with “donors and special interests.” Perhaps, though, it was papered with reporters. The press seemed to think that Bush got the best of Trump in an exchange about eminent domain – a strange consensus considering that Trump has seldom seemed on firmer ground.

Trump also had the line of the night when asked about whether he approved of waterboarding. After explaining that terrorists were beheading innocent people, Trump left no doubt about where he stood. “I’d bring back a hell of a lot worse than waterboarding.”

Ted Cruz, the only man on stage to nab a victory thus far, took heat for telling Iowa voters that Ben Carson was dropping out of the race. He apologized to Carson on stage, but the renowned neurosurgeon was less than forgiving. He rejected Cruz’s reliance on a CNN report, explaining that his campaign corrected that story only minutes after it appeared. Trump later capitalized on the scandal.

In his closing statement, Trump said of Cruz’s Iowa win: “That’s because you got Ben Carson’s votes, by the way.”