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Opinion Forget Trump. These three candidates shined through the low moments in the first GOP debate.

Donald Trump had nothing terrific to say. (AFP PHOTO / MANDEL NGAN)
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There were some low moments in Thursday night’s Republican debate, punctuated by a lot more egomania from Donald Trump. But here’s what actually matters.

New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, Ohio Gov. John Kasich and Florida Sen. Marco Rubio won the debate. Christie gave forceful and sometimes detailed answers, particularly on reducing public benefits for wealthy seniors, without seeming angry. Kasich didn’t try to paper over a record that doesn’t fit perfectly with the loudest voices in the GOP base, such as signing onto Obamacare’s Medicaid expansion in his state. He owned it, explaining his decision with his signature blend of practicality, compassion and policy wonkery. It helped that he was on his home turf in Cleveland. Florida Sen. Marco Rubio spoke confidently and managed to empathize with those who feel that illegal immigrants are “taking advantage” of America’s “generosity” while avoiding nasty nativism — which is at least a rhetorical accomplishment.

Former Florida governor Jeb Bush, meanwhile, once again flubbed his answer to a question about his brother’s war in Iraq in a rambling response that he eventually tried to steer toward President Obama’s Iran nuclear deal. This was the one question he should have nailed. Kentucky Sen. Rand Paul shot out of the gates attacking Trump, which was just the first thing he did during the debate that made him seem desperate for attention. Sen. Ted Cruz came into the evening with a reputation as a champion debater but came out of it without any particularly memorable moments. Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker didn’t make any big mistakes but unconvincingly explained that he’s moved around on issues because he “listened to the American people,” a clear euphemism for “I discovered it would be easier in the GOP primaries if I said something else.”

From businessman Donald Trump's slam on Rosie O'Donnell to Gov. Chris Christie (R-N.J.) and Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.) getting into it over hugs. (Video: Fox News Channel)

As for Trump, he offered only the same mind-numbing narcissism that he always does. He claimed that no one would be talking about illegal immigration if he weren’t in the race and pressing the issue — a statement that, if taken in good faith, is so packed with arrogance and ignorance that one hopes he’s being purposely obtuse. His novelty will wear off. In a debate at which he needed to show he had command of the issues — or, really, any issue at all — he brought nothing beside his usual substance-starved bombast. Remember Herman Cain? Remember Michele Bachmann? Remember how each of them shot up in the polls in 2012 as the base conducted its inevitable flirtations with its worst instincts? Remember how they fell apart because they weren’t credible? Trump is a self-funded version of that.

Despite outward appearances, the GOP race is not a “clown car.” Though crowded, not all the candidates are equally outrageous. Liberal commentators often point out that most Republicans are in the same basic place when it comes to policy — that is, pretty far right. But even among the candidates for whom that’s broadly true, it doesn’t render other distinctions — temperament, judgement, record — meaningless. If Trump weren’t ludicrous, his would be a truly dark path for the GOP, toward an ugly populism marked by reaction rather than reality. Cruz is betting his candidacy on the notion that ideological confrontation rather than accomplishment are what America needs. Kasich, meanwhile, has shown that he is willing to compromise Republican orthodoxies for the good of his constituents, and he defended these choices on Thursday night. Similarly, despite a mostly inert performance on Thursday, most Americans would probably feel more comfortable with Jeb Bush taking the proverbial 3:00 a.m. phone call or deciding whether to push the boundaries of executive power in order to, say, undermine the EPA’s climate change regulations. The question is whether and when the GOP base will appreciate the qualities that separate the more reasonable candidates from the less.

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