Eighth Republican Debate: Where Each Candidate Excelled and Faltered

Now it’s getting manageable

NORTH CHARLESTON, SC - JANUARY 14: Republican presidential candidates (L-R) Ohio Governor John Kasich, New Jersey Governor Chris Christie, Sen. Marco Rubio (R-FL), Donald Trump, Sen. Ted Cruz (R-TX), Ben Carson and Jeb Bush arrive to participate in the Fox Business Network Republican presidential debate at the North Charleston Coliseum and Performing Arts Center on January 14, 2016 in North Charleston, South Carolina. The sixth Republican debate is held in two parts, one main debate for the top seven candidates, and another for three other candidates lower in the current polls. (Photo by Andrew Burton/Getty Images)

NORTH CHARLESTON, SC – JANUARY 14: Republican presidential candidates (L-R) Ohio Governor John Kasich, New Jersey Governor Chris Christie, Sen. Marco Rubio (R-FL), Donald Trump, Sen. Ted Cruz (R-TX), Ben Carson and Jeb Bush arrive to participate in the Fox Business Network Republican presidential debate in North Charleston, South Carolina. (Photo by Andrew Burton/Getty Images)

Donald Trump returned to the state Saturday night for the eighth Republican primary debate, but since so many candidates dropped out after Iowa, the stage was not as crowded. And, we didn’t have to watch an undercard debate!

After Iowa, former Sen. Rick Santorum, former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee and Kentucky Sen. Rand Paul dropped out, meaning we just have to watch seven candidates debate (former Hewlett-Packard CEO Carly Fiorina was not invited to the debate). Now, with the New Hampshire primary just days away, let’s take a look at where everyone did well, and where everyone needed to improve.

Donald Trump

Where he floundered: Going after the audience of a debate isn’t the best use of time for a candidate, yet Mr. Trump gave up one of his answers to set the record straight on his use of eminent domain.

“So — it’s what it is. That’s what — and by the way, let me just tell you, we needed tickets. You can’t get them,” Mr. Trump said. “You know who has the tickets for the — I’m talking about, to the television audience? Donors, special interests, the people that are putting up the money.”

It was an odd thing to watch him change gears and attack the audience at the debate.

Where he excelled: He came back to this debate much more subdued that in some previous debates. Texas Sen. Ted Cruz and Florida Sen. Marco Rubio were also low energy on Saturday night, but for Mr. Trump, it works to make him look less angry and more serious. For others, they look like they aren’t trying hard.

Ted Cruz

Where he floundered: Mr. Cruz did not have a good debate, but he didn’t have a bad debate either. That actually isn’t good for him, since he’s locked in a tight race for second place in the New Hampshire primary and needed to stand out.

Where he excelled: Mr. Cruz was able to articulate his position on immigration clearly and purposefully, and he received applause while sounding less “round em’ up” than Mr. Trump.

“We’re going to increase four-fold, the fixed-wing and rotary-wing aircraft, so that you have technology monitoring an attempted incursion to direct the boots on the ground where they’re occurring,” Mr. Cruz said. “We’re going to put in place a strong e-verify system in the workplace, so you can’t get a job without proving you are here legally.”

He also masterfully tied the heroin epidemic to an unsecure border:

Marco Rubio

Where he floundered: Mr. Rubio was really hurt in an early exchange with New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie. Mr. Christie mentioned how Mr. Rubio always returns to a prepared speech, and for the next three responses to attacks on his record, Mr. Rubio returned to the same prepared speech, proving Mr. Christie’s point.

“This notion that Barack Obama doesn’t know what he’s doing is just not true. He knows exactly what he’s doing,” Mr. Rubio said. He gave some iteration of this no less than three times in a single exchange with Mr. Christie. It was embarrassing.

Where he excelled: He finally got out of his loop of talking about President Obama when he was asked about defeating the Islamic State and gave a coherent and forceful response.

“It will take Sunni Arabs to reject them ideologically and defeat them militarily. That will require a coalition of Iraqis and Syrians, that are also Sunnis, but it will also require the cooperation of Jordanians, Egyptians. We should ask more of the Saudis,” Mr. Rubio said.

Ben Carson

Where he floundered: In a promo before the debate, Mr. Carson said (perhaps jokingly?) that before the event he takes pieces of paper with all the advice he has been given and lights them on fire. That might explain why his debate answers are so incoherent.

He has also begun starting all of his answers by complaining about not getting asked more questions. This was effective the first time he did it, but now he just sounds petty.

Where he excelled: When he spoke about health insurance, he actually sounded authoritative; it’s the only issue in which he sounds like he has a real plan.

“I have proposed a health empowerment account system. Everybody gets a health empowerment account the day they are born, they keep it until they die. They can pass it on,” Mr. Carson said. “We pay for it with the same dollars that we pay for traditional health care with, recognizing that we spend twice as much as many countries per capita and health care and don’t have as such access.”

It may not be the best plan, but Mr. Carson, a former neurosurgeon, is never stronger than when he is talking about healthcare.

Jeb Bush

Where he floundered: He didn’t really flounder so much as he just seems inconsequential at this point. He failed in Iowa despite spending millions, and his campaign continues to fall flat. There’s not much he can do anymore to turn this ship around.

Where he excelled: He actually got a couple attacks in against Mr. Trump when talking about eminent domain, and appeared to have the audience on his side. It was his best attack against Mr. Trump in eight debates, but that’s not saying much.

He also had a great answer about letting the states handle more of the country’s issues, like transportation and education.

“And in the Bush administration, we would shift transportation dollars back to the states. I trust Kasich and Christie to build the roads and the infrastructure of their states than Washington, D.C.,” Mr. Bush said. “EPA delegated authority, back to the states. Education dollars, back to the states. I would like to see reform take place all across the country, where there’s more vouchers, more freedom.”

Chris Christie

Where he floundered: Mr. Christie really didn’t have a bad moment. This was his best debate performance, he landed shots at Mr. Rubio while giving great answers on being an executive and dealing with the country’s drug problem. If he had given more performances like this, he might be higher in the polls.

Where he excelled: Mr. Christie used his first answer to hammer Mr. Rubio hard on the first-term senator’s record, and he landed some major hits.

“When you’re president of the United States, when you’re a governor of a state, the memorized 30-second speech where you talk about how great America is at the end of it doesn’t solve one problem for one person,” Mr. Christie said. And yet, Mr. Rubio continued to repeat his memorized speech.

John Kasich

Where he floundered: He’s doing pretty well in New Hampshire, but nationally he’s in last place of the main-stage candidates. He’s not gaining traction, and I’ve got to say, whenever he speaks, I can’t pay attention to what he says because I can’t stop watching his strange hand movements.

Where he excelled: Mr. Kasich’s “100 days” response was one of the most aggressive he has given in any debate. It doesn’t seem like a realistic plan, given the current state of partisan politics, but it was a good answer.

“I can tell you this, in the first 100 days, I will have legislation to freeze federal regulations, have them reviewed by the vice president, reduce state taxes on individuals, reduce taxes on corporations, have a fiscal plan to balance the budget, get the border protected and begin to fix Social Security in the first 100 days,” Mr. Kasich said.

Eighth Republican Debate: Where Each Candidate Excelled and Faltered