Sans Trump, Who Won the Last GOP Debate Before Iowa?

Florida Senator Marco Rubio speaking at the January 28, 2016 Republican presidential debate in Iowa. Rubio was under fire in Saturday's debate in New Hampshire. REUTERS Jim Young/Reuters

This article first appeared on the American Enterprise Institute site.

Finally, less than a week from the first results of 2016, the Republican presidential candidates made their cases to Iowa caucus-goers at the Fox News/Google debate in Des Moines, Iowa, on Thursday night.

Much of the noise surrounding this debate centered on whether or not Donald Trump would ultimately appear. Since the caucus will provide the first results, however, stakes were high for all.

For such a wide field, performance in Iowa may sink or swim few campaigns, and just points separate Trump and rival Senator Ted Cruz (Texas), according to some polls. As the Iowa GOP takes special efforts not to repeat a 2012-style mix up, pressure is on caucus-organizers too.

The 7 p.m. undercard debate featured Carly Fiorina, former Governor Mike Huckabee (Ariz.), former senator Rick Santorum (Pa.), and former governor Jim Gilmore (Va.).

Invited to the 9 p.m. main event were Trump, Cruz, Senator Marco Rubio (Fla.), Ben Carson, former governor Jeb Bush (Fla.), governors Chris Christie (N.J.) and John Kasich (Ohio) and Senator Rand Paul (Ky.). Trump elected not to attend.

So here's what some at the American Enterprise Institute made of yesterday evening.

Michael Barone

What I found most interesting was Marco Rubio's strategy to leverage upward his place in the Iowa polls, where he runs in double digits—well behind Trump and Cruz, but perceptibly ahead of the others.

Rubio used question after question to respond in religious language, in a state where 57 percent of 2012 caucus-goers described themselves as evangelical Protestants.

And again and again he launched strong attacks on Hillary Clinton, an attempt to make the argument, without explicitly saying so, that he would be the strongest Republican nominee in the general election (a proposition supported, but only weakly, by current polling, but which I think is part of an inchoate feeling that because of his fluency and likability that he would be a strong nominee.)

Rubio needs an unambiguous third place in Iowa (or better) to get a bump and move above the statistical tie where he is now in New Hampshire, alongside Cruz, Kasich and Bush.

Fox anchor Megyn Kelly, cited by Donald Trump as his reason for avoiding the debate, put both Rubio and Cruz on the spot on immigration by showing videotape of them speaking about the issue in the years before 2010 and 2013 (including Cruz speaking to Princeton's charismatic conservative professor Robert George). The tapes showed that they had changed position.

Cruz responded with intellectually coherent arguments; Rubio, without saying so—and in the face of contradiction by Jeb Bush—admitted he had changed his view and assured voters that he would not support legalization of illegals until the border were secured and enforcement effective.

Cruz's description of his legislative strategy, in contrast, was adept but a bit arcane; more convincing were his multiple reminders that he is endorsed by Senator Jeff Sessions and Iowa Congressman Steve King.

Fox commentator Charles Krauthammer said that Jeb Bush put in the strongest performance. Perhaps so. He hazed Rubio on immigration, spoke articulately about his position papers and set out intellectually serious positions on foreign policy.

But I suspect Bush's policy positions on some issues, notably immigration, were not assets with Republican voters and his insistence that he could beat Clinton were (although perhaps wrongly) not yet credible.

My gut instinct is that Trump's absence hurt, not helped him; but like so many other commentators, I'm no longer confident of any prediction that Trump has hurt himself. Trump was attacked, explicitly and implicitly, but it is undeniable that his influence was felt.

I agree with Ramesh Ponnuru (below) that immigration has become a litmus test issue for Republicans, and that they must (as Rubio and Cruz both assured us) not support citizenship or even legalization for illegal immigrants until the border is sealed and enforcement within the country strengthened.

John Kasich had a couple of good moments, notably when he defended his Medicaid program by talking about those suffering from mental illness and drug addiction (opioid addiction is a problem in depressed parts of Ohio).

Chris Christie made the point that governors are held accountable and senators engage in legislator-speak—an intellectually defensible argument, but one which I think doesn't move votes this cycle. Rand Paul made dignified defenses of his views, which don't seem to be political winners this year.

My bottom line, one which I note is not shared by some post-debate commentators, is that this was a strong debate for Rubio and I sense more consensus, not a disastrous debate for anyone though not a helpful one for the guy who didn't show up. But Iowa caucus-goers have a knack for upsetting prognostications.

Karlyn Bowman

The candidates reverted to form last night; we heard many familiar lines, and the candidates assumed familiar postures.

Jeb Bush showed once again deep knowledge of policy specifics, but he seemed awkward and probably didn't help himself, though this was probably his best performance.

Marco Rubio channeled John F. Kennedy again, but last night he seemed strident, when he hasn't in the past.

Ben Carson told us again about making life and death decisions in the operating room, but neither he nor Rand Paul will be the nominee.

Both governors John Kasich and Chris Christie showed they had learned from mistakes in previous debates. They gave solid strong performances, and they did well.

Ted Cruz didn't have a good night. The crowd clearly didn't like his interaction with Chris Wallace. Being booed by the audience never helps.

Donald Trump didn't have a good night either. Although there were a few references to him, neither the candidates, nor the moderators, nor the audience seemed to miss him.

James C. Capretta

First, the debate last night was far better without Donald Trump. There was plenty of substantive criticism and crossfire among the candidates, but, without Trump, the debate was far more substantive and far less juvenile.

Another major takeaway is that Marco Rubio did very well again. He is ready with a quick and compelling answer to just about every question that comes his way, and was able to handle the tougher questions (particularly on immigration) without causing himself further trouble. He is particularly effective at defending conservative policy positions in ways that can be attractive to Americans of all ideological persuasions.

Bush also had a very good night. He was assertive, clear, animated and active throughout the evening. He did not hurt himself last night.

A couple of interesting exchanges on domestic issues:

Senator Cruz was asked what he would do to cover people with health insurance after he repealed Obamacare. He mentioned three things: allowing health insurance to be purchased across state lines; expansion of Health Savings Accounts; and severing the link between employment and insurance.

There's not enough detail here to know for sure what he has in mind, but it would not be possible to sever the link between health insurance and employment without changing the tax treatment of health insurance. It appears Cruz supports the conversion of the tax break for job-based health insurance into a universal tax credit, much as John McCain proposed in 2008.

Although he is headed in the right direction, it is a major political vulnerability to propose upending job-based health insurance. Just ask McCain.

Christie was asked what federal program he would terminate. It would have been good if all of the candidates had been asked that question. His response that he would terminate federal funding of Planned Parenthood was good (it should be terminated), but he probably missed a chance to offer up something bigger and meatier. This question should be asked again at the next debate.

Timothy P. Carney

A stage without Donald Trump proved to be a stage with more policy-substance and more examination of candidates' records.

Ted Cruz, Jeb Bush and Marco Rubio had a back and forth about immigration (which Chris Christie dismissed as bickering). It was a substantive debate, forced candidates to hone their positions, and provided viewers a more nuanced view of the issue.

This episode, and similar discussions of climate change, foreign policy and political reality were all more edifying because Trump wasn't on the stage. Thursday night was an education in what could have been had a performer not come in and taken up the oxygen.

Thomas P. Miller

Not surprisingly, Thursday night's debate took on a different tone, with more substance. (I can't quite put my finger on what was different…oh, yeah).

A few preliminaries. Just about all of the candidates improve over time. So did the Fox debate questioners, particularly in more effective use of video to limit several candidates in reinventing their past records.

I'll limit my points here to commenting more on style and presentation, in keeping with how far too many primary and caucus voters approach their final choices. (Deal with it!)

On the margins, Ben Carson jumped over his conventional gaps in experience with a strong statement about the actual high-stakes, complex pressure decisions he's had to make. But hey, being president isn't exactly life-threatening brain surgery.

And the return of Rand Paul to the main ring won't move his polling numbers, but his presence periodically provided a reality reset.

John Kasich finally got past his usual nostalgic trip back to his experience of the 1980s and 1990s (those Kasich decades). He was less sanctimonious than usual regarding his Medicaid expansion decisions in Ohio and spoke in a sober, uplifting manner regarding how government sometimes can actually work in dealing with mental illness and drug addiction. Key takeaway: expanding and strengthening opportunity for everybody.

Chris Christie again demonstrated the special ability to speak directly to the audience through the camera. He's winning the soundbites, but not the primary voting. Best lines: "Stop the Washington bull"; "The days for the Clintons in public housing are over." Plus good linkage of defending religious liberty (broadly) to defeating ISIS.

Jeb Bush had his best debate. Much steadier and snappier delivery in most cases, with more mojo. Most of his best points, unfortunately, would work much better in a general election than early Republican primaries.

Marco Rubio was backed up into counterpunching, primarily on his Senate immigration baggage. He kept trying to move the subject to the future from the recent past. He still had his moments, and, as I'm writing this, at least one focus group in Luntz-land is giving him higher marks than what I saw.

The detracting factor tonight was his stylistic habit of hitting the play button on prerecorded stump speech paragraphs on most questions, rather than finding a conversational voice and tone.

Ted Cruz started off a little defensive and cranky. Cruz should have scored high marks (only among the free market intelligentsia) for his firm defense of his stand on ethanol subsidies in Iowa, right before he tried to re-pander to voters there with a regulatory relief offset. But that's not as bad as most candidates perform.

Cruz fielded the only substantive question on health policy (running #8 in voters' issue concerns these days, but what do they know?) He rattled off the quick, facile policy dog whistles on how he would replace Obamacare.

Sounding assured about the benefits of interstate purchases of health insurance, expanding HSAs and delinking health insurance from employment is just that: sounding like all those limited measures will deliver more than is feasible, let alone likely.

Along with exaggerated claims about the economic effects of Obamacare thus far, such rhetoric will work for the time being, given the underlying knowledge and attention span of most Republican primary voters regarding health policy.

Ramesh Ponnuru

Governor Jeb Bush was strong. He took a shot at Marco Rubio for running away from his own immigration bill, and he handled a question about his campaign's attacks on the other candidates well (saying that if they could not withstand his attacks, Hillary Clinton's would finish them).

Rand Paul had his best debate yet. The petulance that sometimes surfaces was held in check — even after a question about his father that could reasonably have elicited it — and Paul effectively explained libertarian views about criminal justice and Syria.

Senator Ted Cruz's night was more mixed. His answer on ethanol was excellent: He refused to retreat from an anti-subsidy stand that is quite brave for a candidate who needs to win Iowa, but also made the case that Iowa would do fine without the subsidy. On the other hand, at one point he appeared to be whining about his treatment by the moderators, and got booed.

Rubio, I thought, took real hits from both sides on immigration: from Cruz, who cut through a lot of debater's points by noting that Rubio had stood with Obama while he opposed him, and from Bush, as noted above. Rubio's worst night, though, is still pretty good.

Chris Christie had some great lines—"I feel like I need a Washington-to-English dictionary converter," he said after one exchange about immigration—and Kasich wisely refused to repeat his claim that conservatives who oppose him on Medicaid expansion are not good Christians.

Donald Trump's fans have been claiming that Fox News is on a mission against their man, a narrative the moderators undercut by asking tough questions of the candidates who showed.

By dropping out of the debate, Trump avoided having Fox produce a montage of his flip-flops, as it did for Cruz and Rubio. (Fox would have had a lot of material for a Trump montage.)

The candidates on the stage took pretty hard shots at one another while mostly ignoring him. That probably wouldn't have happened if he had been there. Trump is probably not regretting having skipped this debate. Dr. Carson, meanwhile, only seemed like he wasn't there.

Angela Rachidi

Last night's debate was very different from prior GOP debates, but not because Donald Trump wasn't there. In fact, his absence went largely unnoticed. One main difference was that economic issues were largely absent. With only a few days before the first vote is cast, it would have been nice to hear more about how the candidates plan to increase economic opportunity in this country.

Another major difference was that, for the first time, the sitting and former governors seemed to outshine the senators. Senator Ted Cruz seemed too concerned about the moderators and appeared less polished and comfortable than usual. Senator Rubio seemed a little too rehearsed.

But each in their own way, John Kasich, Chris Christie and Jeb Bush may have finally made the case for being the most qualified GOP candidates to be president. They were strong on policy and made the case for their record of getting things done.

But in an election year where experience seems to be a liability, it's unclear whether any of the governors have time to turn this primary around.

Benjamin Zycher

Maybe nature doesn't abhor a vacuum. In the absence of Donald Trump's vulgarity and crude demeanor, the debate failed to descend into a mud pit of insults and childishness. Instead, attacks were sharp but substantive — or as substantive as Beltway exchanges can be –and thus will strengthen an eventual nominee not named Trump.

Some observations:

  • Cruz's tongue-in-cheek threat to leave the stage struck me as forced and ineffective.
  • Both Cruz and Rubio emphasized increased military spending and an expansion of force structure (planes and ships) as tools needed to defeat ISIS. This simply is not correct. ISIS essentially is about two divisions of murderers with Toyota trucks and machine guns. What is needed to defeat it is political will, of the sort that Barack Obama is incapable. Can you imagine what the IDF would do to ISIS if the Israelis decided to confront them militarily?
  • Why is Jeb Bush required to defend George W. Bush's policies?
  • On profiling of potential domestic terrorists, Christie's answer was confused: "People should call the cops when they see something," an example of which was the arsenal that the San Bernardino killers had in their apartment. Well, Governor, what if "people" don't call the cops? What then?
  • Rand Paul's answer on the abuses of the Ferguson police and criminal justice system — the excessive fines used to fund the local budget, the insanity of the war on drugs, the unfairness of the criminal justice system — was a high point, in particular for anyone professing to believe in limited government, due process and the rule of law. Chris Christie would never allow himself to make such an argument.
  • It strikes me that the issue of who said what about immigration in the past, who changed their position, etc., is a real waste of time and energy. Moving forward, political incentives and constraints will move any of these candidates in essentially the same direction.
  • Given Rubio's vulnerability on the Gang of Eight effort: why is he extending this discussion?
  • On why polls place him third in Florida, Rubio answered that Hillary is an awful candidate. True. And irrelevant.
  • So three investigations found that Christie knew nothing about the bridge shenanigans orchestrated by his aides. OK. But irrelevant. Why does Christie have such morons around him in the first place, and what do their actions tell us about the culture that he has engendered?
  • Paul's answer on abortion — send it back to the states and preserve federal authority — was utterly confused. He should have said that states should have the authority to decide their own policies in the early stages of a pregnancy, but that the federal government should have the power to protect the unborn at later stages. Paul missed a good chance to highlight the Democrats' extremism on this issue.
  • Cruz's answer on the ethanol boondoggle was OK until he called for tearing down the "blend wall," that is, the 10 percent limit on the ethanol content of gasoline. The blend wall cannot be torn down because blending percentages higher than 10 percent will damage a lot of engines.

I will finish as I began: The absence of Trump is some proof of the existence of God.

Michael Barone, a resident fellow at the American Enterprise Institute and co-author of the annual Almanac of American Politics (National Journal Group), is a senior political analyst for the Washington Examiner. Karlyn Bowman is senior fellow and research coordinator at AEI. James C. Capretta is visiting fellow at the AEI. He was an associate director at the White House's Office of Management and Budget from 2001 to 2004, where he was responsible for all health care, Social Security and welfare issues. He is also a senior fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center. Timothy P. Carney is visiting fellow, Culture of Competition Project, at AEI. Thomas Miller is a resident fellow at AEI. Ramesh Ponnuru is a visiting fellow at AEI, a senior editor for National Review and a columnist for Bloomberg View. Angela Rachidi is a research fellow in poverty studies at AEI and a former deputy commissioner for policy research and evaluation for the Department of Social Services in New York . Benjamin Zycher is the John G. Searle chair, a resident scholar at AEI and a senior fellow at the Pacific Research Institute.