Seven of the eight leading Republican presidential candidates gathered in Iowa on Thursday night for the seventh debate of the race. Donald Trump, the race's clear front-runner, was less than 10 miles away from the debate site — holding his own counter-rally after deciding not to participate for decidedly vague reasons.
I watched the whole thing. (We also annotated it!) Below is my take on the best and the worst from the night that was.
• Rand Paul: Maybe the senator just needed to take a debate off. After not making the main stage in the sixth debate (and refusing to appear in the undercard debate), Paul was a major player in this one. He showed off his trademark willingness to needle the other candidates — he went after Marco Rubio and Ted Cruz at various points — but also offered nuanced thoughts on racial profiling and abortion. This was the Paul whom many political observers — myself included — thought we might see in this campaign: A candidate willing and able to speak to issues his party has struggled to address in recent years. Too little, too late. But, at least he had a moment.
• Megyn Kelly: There has rarely been a debate moderator who has come under as much scrutiny as Kelly has during the course of this campaign. Despite all of that negative attention, Kelly showed on Thursday night why she is the face of Fox News. She was pointed, tough and well-versed on the issues. And, more important to me? She showed her sense of humor and a willingness to not take herself too seriously. That she performed so well with so many eyes on her speaks incredibly highly of her abilities.
• Jeb Bush: If you had any doubt about how much Donald Trump is in Bush's head, this debate should have cleared it up. The former Florida governor was, from the get-go, more relaxed and more forceful in this Trump-less debate than he has been in the previous six debates where Trump was included. He owned his family's political legacy unapologetically. He fought Rubio to a draw in an immigration back and forth. He regularly was the only candidate — aside from Paul — who answered the questions asked of him. Bush is still a somewhat (okay, very) awkward candidate — his halting closing statement was painful — who doesn't really like going on the attack. But, without Trump looming over him, Bush looked positively presidential.
• Video reels of past candidate statements: Fox ran video clips of both Rubio and Cruz saying things in the past that they have run away from in this campaign. And it was great! This is what debates should be about. Holding candidates accountable. Asking them to explain why what they said four years ago isn't what they are saying now. I only wish Fox did this for all of the candidates.
• Commercials: Thank you, Fox News! A commercial every 30 minutes or so worked nicely both with my bathroom needs and my desire to consume somewhere between 100 and 120 Oreos. #blessed
• Ted Cruz: He did the thing I hate the most in debates — complain about the rules — when he tried to game a bit more talking time and got shut down by moderator Chris Wallace. The senator's joking threat that if he kept taking incoming from the other candidates he might leave the stage (Trump reference!) fell flat. He was on the wrong end of a scolding by Paul over his conservative righteousness. And, time and time again, Cruz found himself insisting that on a panoply of issues — military spending, immigration etc. — everyone was either wrong about his position or didn't understand it well enough. That's too much defense for Cruz to play — especially in a debate without Trump.
• Ben Carson: Whoa boy. Carson swung from barely being asked any questions to providing answers that often bordered on incoherence. His response to a question about how to deal with Russia simply made no sense — further adding to the narrative that he is far, far out of his depth on foreign policy. At one point, he seemed stunned to even get a question, which isn't the best look for a guy running to be the leader of a 300-million-person country. Carson looked out of his league tonight.
• Chris Christie: The New Jersey governor felt a little like a Johnny One-Note tonight. For every question he was asked, the answer was how terrible Hillary Clinton is, was and will be. Okay, I get that bashing Clinton is never a bad idea in a Republican primary, but the strategy made Christie look very two-dimensional and brought to my mind memories of Rudy Giuliani's campaign in 2008. And not in a good way.
* Fox News Channel: The simple fact is that from an entertainment perspective, this debate was less interesting than virtually all of the previous six. The reason? Trump wasn't there. That, of course, is not entirely (or even mainly) Fox's fault. But, my guess is that the ratings for this debate will be significantly lower than the other Republican debates on major cable channels. And, if you don't think ratings are the way networks judge success, I have a whole mess of compact discs — they're the future of music! — to sell you.