Marco Rubio smiles as he speaks during Republican presidential debate at Milwaukee Theatre, Tuesday, Nov. 10, 2015, in Milwaukee. (AP Photo/Morry Gash)
Opinion writer

Judging primary campaign debates can be a tricky business, because those most effective on stage and before partisan base voters often aren’t the ones who are most reasonable. Tuesday night’s Republican presidential debate is a classic example. Jeb Bush and Ohio Gov. John Kasich claimed moral victories. Texas Sen. Ted Cruz and Donald Trump, by contrast, were careless zealots. Florida Sen. Marco Rubio, meanwhile, “won” the debate, in part because the moderators didn’t pin him down on politically tricky issues.

More than any other substantive issue, immigration has sorted the GOP candidates into those who would like to govern in reality and those who want to do something else. Trump repeated his call for mass deporting illegal immigrants — before allowing some to come back, presumably the good ones, who would re-enter through a classy door. Cruz amplified Trump’s comments with this fantastical statement: “If Republicans join Democrats as the party of amnesty, we will lose.” On the contrary, if Republicans nominate an immigration hard-liner, they will lose.  

John Kasich fought back:

For the 11 million people, come on, folks. We all know you can’t pick them up and ship them across, back across the border. It’s a silly argument. It is not an adult argument. It makes no sense.

Jeb Bush did, too:

Twelve million illegal immigrants, to send them back, 500,000 a month, is just not — not possible. And it’s not embracing American values. And it would tear communities apart. And it would send a signal that we’re not the kind of country that I know America is. And even having this conversation sends a powerful signal — they’re doing high-fives in the Clinton campaign right now when they hear this. That’s the problem with this. We have to win the presidency. And the way you win the presidency is to have practical plans. Lay them out there. What we need to do is allow people to earn legal status where they pay a fine, where they work, where they don’t commit crimes, where they learn English, and over an extended period of time, they earn legal status.

But when the moderators turned to Rubio, a candidate with a complicated history on the immigration issue who would no doubt like to play both sides, they lobbed him this softball: “With factories run by robots and shopping done increasingly on smartphones, many traditional jobs are just going away. How do you reassure American workers that their jobs are not being steadily replaced by machines?” That’s effectively asking Rubio to recite the “economy” portion of his stump speech. He took advantage of this and the other opportunities the moderators handed him to display his rhetorical gifts.

The situation was similar as the candidates discussed banking — of the central variety and otherwise. Cruz called for re-adopting the gold standard, a position that, economist Justin Wolfers pointed out on Twitter, “literally 0% of leading economists favor” in a recent poll. Rand Paul questioned whether “we want a Federal Reserve that’s involved so much in determining interest rates.” In the undercard debate, Chris Christie accused the Fed of manipulating interest rates to benefit President Obama’s poll numbers. Though they might resonate with some Republicans, these lines of argument, if acted upon, would be economically toxic.

Meanwhile, the most notable thing Bush and Kasich called for on banking regulation was increasing the amount of capital banks have to keep on hand to cover their operations. Though a debatable point, it’s well within the realm of reasonable economic discussion.

The moderators turned to Rubio and asked, “Why should the American people trust you to lead this country, even though [Hillary Clinton] has been so much closer to the office?” Another softball. Rubio swung: “This election is about the future, about what kind of country this nation is gonna be in the 21st century….” You get the picture.

So, though Bush and Kasich did much more to demonstrate that they are reasonable policy minds, Rubio “won” the debate. Cruz, meanwhile, did a fine job appealing to immigration ultras and anti-Fed cranks on the right — not that anyone should be impressed.