With frontrunner Donald Trump boycotting the debate to hold his own pro-veteran event, the Republican Party got the debate it originally thought it would in this election cycle.
With Mr. Trump’s absence, focus shifted to the current second-place candidate, Texas Sen. Ted Cruz. Although Mr. Trump was not there, his presence was felt in the numerous questions candidates received regarding the missing frontrunner.
Despite the shadow hanging over this debate, the candidates who qualified to be on the main stage (Carly Fiorina was in the undercard debate once again, while Kentucky Sen. Rand Paul was upgraded back to the main event) did have their moments.
Where he floundered: Mr. Cruz made several jokes at Mr. Trump’s expense Thursday night. One of those jokes ended up falling flat and gave Florida Sen. Marco Rubio a chance to get a shot in. Multiple other candidates were asked to attack Mr. Cruz, and during one of his own questions, he addressed this, jokingly saying: “Gosh, if you guys ask one more mean question I may have to leave the stage.”
Unfortunately for Mr. Cruz, the joke came across more as an actual threat, allowing Mr. Rubio to remark on his next answer that “I’m not leaving the stage no matter what you ask me.”
Where he excelled: Mr. Cruz opened the debate by answering a question about the absence of Mr. Trump by listing off a bunch of insults to the other candidates as if he were the Republican frontrunner.
“Now, secondly, let me say I’m a maniac and everyone on this stage is stupid, fat, and ugly. And Ben, you’re a terrible surgeon,” Mr. Cruz said to laughter. “Now that we’ve gotten the Donald Trump portion out of the way…”
Mr. Cruz also weathered a montage put together by Fox News that showed the Texas senator suggesting his amendment to the immigration bill would improve the bill, even though he now claims that amendment was meant to be a poison pill.
Mr. Cruz was able to shoot down the suggestion that he was lying by explaining what his amendment did and reminding the audience that stalwart conservatives Sen. Jeff Sessions and Rep. Steve King both supported his language.
Where he floundered: Mr. Rubio also had a video montage that appeared to show him flip-flopping on amnesty. He really struggled to defend himself afterward, saying that he was discussing “blanket amnesty” in the video clips but that his support of the Gang of 8 bill included a “path to citizenship,” and somehow those were different.. Former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush mopped the floor with Mr. Rubio when it came to immigration and how to solve the problem, as I’ll discuss later.
Where he excelled: Mr. Rubio brought the chuckles tonight. His answer about the Islamic State was both tough and humorous:
“This group needs to be confronted and defeated. They are not going to go away on their own. They’re not going to turn into stockbrokers overnight or open up a chain of car washes. They need to be defeated militarily, and that will take overwhelming U.S. force.”
And his comments about Hillary Clinton’s email scandal and Sweden also got a laugh out of me.
“And Hillary Clinton, Hillary Clinton is disqualified from being the commander-in-chief of the United States. In fact, one of her first acts as president may very well be to pardon herself because Hillary Clinton… Hillary Clinton stored classified information on her private server,” Mr. Rubio said to laughter.
Later, he went after Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders and Sweden:
“Bernie Sanders is a socialist. I think Bernie Sanders is good candidate for president of Sweden. We don’t want to be Sweden. We want to be the United States of America.”
Not only did Mr. Rubio have substantive answers to serious questions, he was able to slip in some jokes while he responded.
Where he floundered: Suggesting that we should keep out all 10 immigrants if one is affiliated with terrorism smacks of Blackstone’s formulation in reverse.
“Now, I recognize that the vast majority of people coming in here probably are not those kinds of people, but that’s not good enough,” Mr. Carson said. “If you’ve got 10 people coming to your house and you know one of them is a terrorist, you’re probably going to keep them all out.”
I just have a real hard time accepting punishment for innocent people for the actions of a guilty person.
Where he excelled: Saying he’s had more 2 a.m. phone calls than any of the other candidates was a great way to tie in his surgery experience with being in charge of the country. Hillary Clinton famously suggested in 2008 that President Obama wasn’t prepared for a 3 a.m. phone call. Mr. Carson’s response was an updated take on the question, and was probably his only bright spot of the night.
Where he floundered: His attempt to knock Mr. Trump came off a little creepy.
“I kind of miss Donald Trump. He was a little teddy bear to me,” Mr. Bush said.
Where he excelled: Mr. Bush was given an opening and took it on a question about the problems at the Department of Veterans Affairs.
“I will make sure that we fire the sheer incompetence inside the Department of Veterans Affairs and then we’ll give veterans a choice card so that they don’t have to travel hours and hours to get care if they want to go to their private provider,” Mr. Bush said.
In a campaign that is largely ignoring the issues with the VA, Mr. Bush’s answer was refreshing.
Where he floundered: He fumbled the question on profiling. He suggested law enforcement should make decisions about whether someone is acting suspicious, however, police would need to be informed by people… profiling.
“It’s not for them to make those decisions about whether or not something is legal or illegal, or profiling or not,” Mr. Christie said. “You see something that’s suspicious, you call law enforcement and let law enforcement make those decisions.”
The problem with this answer is, as in the San Bernardino case, law enforcement wasn’t called because neighbors thought they would be profiling. Mr. Christie is essentially telling them to profile in turning it over to the police.
Where he excelled: He had a poignant answer about Hillary Clinton’s claim that she used a private email server “for her convenience.”
“And, they asked about her email situation. And, here’s what she said to the American people. She did it for convenience. For her convenience. She put America’s secrets at risk for her convenience. She put American intelligence officers at risk for her convenience. She put American strategy at risk for her convenience,” Mr. Christie said.
He also stood his ground on defunding Planned Parenthood. That might not bring any left-leaning voters to the Republican side in the general election, but it should help him in the primary.
Where he floundered: Mr. Paul was asked via YouTube about using technology such as body cameras to protect citizens and law enforcement. Mr. Paul said he supported legislation to allow body cameras, but quickly moved on from the question to talk about criminal justice reform.
He didn’t actually answer the question.
Where he excelled: Mr. Paul is still beating the drum on the National Security Agency’s collection of American phone records. It’s an issue that Americans are worried about, it’s just not in the forefront of many minds.
“Thee bulk collection of your phone data, the invasion of your privacy did not stop one terrorist attack,” Mr. Paul said. “I don’t think you have to give up your liberty for a false sense of security.”
Where he floundered: Other than a bit of momentum in New Hampshire, Mr. Kasich is just taking up stage space.
Where he excelled: I honestly tuned him out whenever he talked. I couldn’t tell you about a single answer he gave without looking it up, and based on Google search results, no one else seems to be able to either.