The four remaining Republican presidential candidates gathered in Detroit on Thursday night for the 11th debate of the GOP nomination fight. I tweeted it. The Fix team annotated it. And, below, I picked some of the best — and worst — of the night that was.
* Ted Cruz: The senator from Texas picked a nice moment to have his best debate of the primary season. He flashed his prosecutorial chops when making the case that Donald Trump was neither a real conservative nor someone who could win the White House for Republicans this fall. His persistent calls for Trump to release the audiotape of an off-the-record interview with the New York Times were effective and put the real estate mogul off his game a bit. Cruz also benefited from the fact that Trump and Marco Rubio went after each other hammer and tongs for the first hour of the debate, a brawl that allowed him to look like he was above the fray and magnanimous.
* John Kasich: The narrowing of the presidential field quite clearly helped the Ohio governor on Thursday night. Sure, it often felt as if he was participating in an entirely different debate than the other three candidates. But, when he got a chance to talk, Kasich’s uplifting and positive message made for a welcome relief from the name-calling, interrupting and general rudeness that dominated most of the conversation on stage in Detroit. Kasich effectively made the case for why being an insider was a good thing — a very hard one to make in an election like this one — and probably won himself some votes from voters fed up with all the fighting. Did he do enough to boost him into the top tier? No. But that simply isn’t possible for Kasich, given the delegate math. Still, he deserves credit for putting his best foot forward.
* Fox News moderators: Bret Baier, Megyn Kelly and Chris Wallace are a really good trio. They asked well-thought-out questions that anticipated — and avoided — the talking points of the candidates. I l-o-v-e-d when Wallace called up a series of fact checks aimed at rebutting Trump's talking points on how he would handle the debt and deficit issues. Ditto the video triptych that Kelly introduced showing Trump contradicting himself over and over. That's what moderators should do; force candidates off their regular shtick, make them think on their feet a bit and, in the process, show viewers who they really are.
* Teenagers: A penis size reference within the first 10 minutes of the debate? The 12-year-old version of me would have laughed like crazy at Trump's "guarantee" about the size of his genitals. (Okay, fine. The 40-year-old version of me laughed, too.)
* Donald Trump: Trump totally dominated the debate in terms of speaking time and the broader conversation. There were times where it felt more like an interview with Trump than a debate with three candidates not named Trump on stage. As is usually the case with Trump in a debate setting, the more he talks, the less positive the outcome is for him. He repeatedly came across as juvenile — calling Rubio "Little Marco" and Cruz "Lyin' Ted." Hell, within the first 10 minutes of the debate Trump was insisting that questions about his endowment — not the financial kind — were way off.
From a more substantive perspective, Trump took real body blows — especially from Cruz — regarding Trump University and the comments he made in an off-the-record session with the New York Times. Trump, as he has in nearly every debate, showed a wafer-thin understanding of policy and, when pressed about that lack of knowledge, reverted to name-calling. Does any of the above matter? It hasn't yet.
* Marco Rubio: The senator from Florida seemed to have resigned himself to a kamikaze mission against Trump during this debate. He jabbed at and with Trump over and over again in the debate's first 60 minutes, turning every question — and answer — into an attack on Trump. It hurt Trump but hurt Rubio, too, as he struggled to get back to his more positive “new American century” message. Rubio improved in the second half of the debate, but Cruz was better throughout. It’s hard to see how this debate changes the dynamic set in place on Tuesday night: Trump as the favorite, Cruz with the next-best chance of being the nominee, Rubio as Trump spoiler.
*Debate audience: From the mugging for the cameras — act like you’ve been there! — to the constant cheering and jeering for every word the candidates uttered, the audience was annoying at best and distracting at worst. I am not a big fan of debates held without a live audience, but this is getting bad.
* The Republican Party: The first hour of the debate was an absolute disaster for Republicans hoping to rebrand their party heading into the 2016 general election. It looked more like a high school cafeteria food fight than an even semi-serious conversation about issues.
Assuming Trump is the nominee — and he has the most obvious path — then this debate will provide Democrats with roughly 100 minutes’ worth of raw footage of Rubio and Cruz savaging the real estate mogul that they can use in negative ads this fall. A lose-lose for the GOP.
* The thing on Ted Cruz’s lip: Was it the piece of a mint? Spittle? A piece of tooth? I don’t know. But what I do know is that it will haunt my dreams.