Who Gained, Who Lost in the GOP Debate?

Jeb Bush, right, speaks about Donald Trump, left, as Ted Cruz, center, looks on during the Republican presidential debate in Las Vegas on December 15. Bush went after Trump, and Rubio and Cruz went after each other. But who’s up and who’s down now that it’s all over? Mike Blake/Reuters

This article first appeared on the American Enterprise Institute site.

With 2016 in plain sight and only weeks to go before the Iowa caucuses, the GOP presidential candidates came to Las Vegas Tuesday for their fifth and final debate of the year.

Hosted by CNN, Facebook and Salem Radio, and moderated by Wolf Blitzer, Dana Bash and Hugh Hewitt, the evening was divided into two events to accommodate the wide field. A 6 p.m. debate featured four low-polling candidates: former Arkansas Governor Mike Huckabee, former Pennsylvania Senator Rick Santorum, South Carolina Senator Lindsey Graham and former New York Governor George Pataki.

The 8:30 p.m. prime time debate featuring the nine top-polling contenders: Donald Trump, Texas Senator Ted Cruz, Ben Carson, Florida Senator Marco Rubio, former Florida Governor Jeb Bush, Carly Fiorina, New Jersey Governor Chris Christie, Kentucky Senator Rand Paul and Ohio Governor John Kasich. These candidates polled at least 3.5 percent nationally, or at least 4 percent in Iowa or in New Hampshire, from October 29 to December 13 in polls recognized by CNN.

So how exactly did it go? Some quick thoughts from those at AEI:

Michael Barone

The big news from CNN's Republican debate in Las Vegas is that there is a knockdown, drag-out fight going on (and likely to go into the future) between Marco Rubio and Ted Cruz. There's not space or time here to fact-check and critique their comments, but they did present significantly different views on foreign policy and immigration, which were—and should be—major issues in this nomination race.

Rubio, in effect, confessed error for his support of the "Gang of Eight" comprehensive immigration bill in 2013; it will be interesting to see if this satisfies Republican primary voters and caucus-goers. My own instinct is that Rubio is occupying the more sustainable ground, but we'll see.

Other candidates cruised pretty comfortably in their own lanes. Donald Trump was Donald Trump, sometimes interesting, sometimes brutally dismissive (of Bush's poll numbers, for example), but almost mellow in his pledge to support the winner of the Republican nomination.

Bush tried to get himself back into contention, especially with his obviously prepared characterization of Trump as a "chaos candidate." But the problem here is that in a multi-candidate race, if candidate A attacks candidate B, it may hurt B but it also tends to hurt A and help candidates C and D and E. In this case, I think Bush's attack was enough out of line with his demeanor that this just doesn't work for him.

Christie made a strong case for himself and has some hope of advancing to contender status in New Hampshire, where his intensive schedule of town hall meetings has propelled him to significant upward movement in the polls.

Kasich made a few good points. Paul gave some principled defenses of the positions that have proved to have almost no Republican constituency since ISIS started beheading Americans in August 2014. Fiorina provided some intelligent analysis of the incompetence of government that would seem to qualify her for a Cabinet-type position in a Republican administration.

Carson took some trouble to demonstrate, as he hasn't previously, that he's familiar with details about the Middle East and military strategy. But I don't think any of them advanced himself or herself toward the nomination.

Much of the first half of the debate was dominated by the candidates' perception that terrorism and the threat of attack has become voters' chief concern. I was also struck by several candidates' persuasive complaints that government is just not very good at getting things done— Fiorina was particularly good on this.

There was also enough biting criticism of the records of Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton to warm any Republican's heart, and to suggest to analysts that Republicans are not worried that this will be off-putting to independent voters.

Karlyn Bowman

National security is the top issue in the polls now, and Americans want to hear more about it. They did on Tuesday night, with interesting, serious jousting. Will we hear the same kind of substantive discussion to address U.S. weaknesses on December 19 at the Democratic debate? It is doubtful.

Although Bush had some good lines and a good night overall, other debaters seemed stronger. Trump was in character. The deep differences between Rubio and Cruz were on display, and Rubio seemed less confident than in previous debates.

Timothy Carney

Donald Trump was his normal, boorish, rambling, Trump-absorbed self, and it probably helped cement him as the national front-runner. The Ted Cruz versus Marco Rubio debates over war and immigration were some of the best policy sparring of the election season. While there was no clear winner in Cruz vs. Rubio, the debate cemented them as the two strongest candidates among the non-Trumps.

Bush didn't have his worst debate, but he probably needed his best in order to make himself relevant again before Iowa and New Hampshire.

Mackenzie Eaglen

Tuesday night's debate widened the gulf between candidates serious about national security and those who recycled slogans or avoided the matter entirely. Essentially, it re-litigated the national security arguments of the Bush era about the necessity of American leadership, the utility of strong surveillance authorities and the connection between military power and political objectives.

Once again, Paul, Cruz, Trump and Carson essentially endorsed a limited role for American military power and, by extension, a downsized U.S. military—a continuation of the Obama-era status quo.

Trump and Cruz both doubled down on their empty toughness regarding civilian casualties, while Trump joined Cruz in lacking substance regarding the nation's nuclear weapons.

In an unusually raucous debate—even by this primary's standard—Kasich occasionally garnered a cheer by claiming bipartisanship but failed to convince anyone that he truly believes in the peaceful deterrent effects of economic security supported by American military strength.

By contrast, Rubio, Bush, Christie and Fiorina defended the maintenance of a robust military and intelligence toolbox for the country and demonstrated a grasp of the important facts combined with a willingness to talk about the imperative of increased defense investments.

While the seams within the Republican Party on national security were re-exposed in the debate, the next occupant of the Oval Office will clearly need strengthened tools of American statecraft and more options in foreign and defense policy to turn the global tide. Only half the candidates onstage seemed prepared to endorse this necessary and far-overdue rebuilding.

Norm Ornstein

My first reaction is the same as it was for the previous debates. Nine candidates on the stage is simply too unwieldy. Inevitably, you end up with candidates talking over each other, complaining about being ignored and clashing with moderators when they go on too long.

What also happens is that when there are serious and substantive exchanges, as we saw with Paul, Rubio and Cruz on the basic rule of America in the world, they get shut off to accommodate all the other candidates and the other moderators. And follow-up questions also get curtailed, making it easier for candidates to dissemble or filibuster.

My second reaction is that nothing fundamental was changed by this debate in terms of the relative standing of the candidates. Paul and Bush had by far their best performances. Does anyone think that will vault either or both into the front ranks? I don't.

It was interesting that Cruz and Paul decided to go after Rubio vigorously, while only Bush went after Trump without direct prodding from the moderators. To many pundits and reporters tweeting during the debate, this was evidence that Rubio is the front-runner.

I am skeptical of that. I think for Cruz it was a desire to make sure that Rubio performs badly enough in Iowa that he will be damaged deeply as the process goes on, weakening the most credible establishment candidate. And on the immigration issue it might have worked.

I was struck that Christie mentioned over and over his experience as a prosecutor and almost totally ignored his tenure as governor.

On substance, I was disappointed but not surprised at the shallowness of the debate. Fiorina said that to deal with North Korea we would have to get cooperation from China. That was followed by numerous candidates talking about how we had to get extra tough with China. It would have been nice to get some discussion of how, realistically, you can do both.

With a few exceptions, the discussions about a strategy against ISIS mostly involved belligerent talk but no real depth of discussion about specific policies, and how those policies would differ from those of Barack Obama.

Where there were discussions of specifics—including the efficacy and legality of carpet-bombing, or how we can balance our tough talk about Muslims with the necessary coalitions with Arab allies—the follow-up was just disappointing. But as much as anything, that is simply the flaw of a two-hour debate with nine candidates and three moderators.

My bottom line is that Trump and Cruz are still the two candidates to watch as we approach the formal start of the campaign. Nothing in this debate, I believe, changed that.

Ramesh Ponnuru

This debate aired real differences of opinion among Republicans on several important issues. The main conflict was between Rubio and Cruz, and it swept in immigration, foreign policy and National Security Agency surveillance.

I'd say that Cruz narrowly won each of those debates politically. Many Republicans will find his lack of enthusiasm for aggressive democracy promotion reasonable, and he held his ground on surveillance. On immigration, he benefits when he leaves aside the policy details and points out that Rubio sided with Obama and Chuck Schumer. What might come back to hurt him is own ambiguity, past and present, on giving legal status to illegal immigrants.

Only two candidates were willing to take on Trump, the polling front-runner: Bush and Paul. On two occasions, Bush made the basic, obviously true point that we need Muslim allies in the war on terrorism and that Trump's policies and rhetoric would make it much harder to get them. Trump had no answer.

I don't know whether this debate will help Bush or hurt Trump. But I am sure that Trump's inability to offer substantive answers is one of the reasons he won't be president.

Angela Rachidi

After five Republican debates, a few things are clear. The candidates still do not know how to handle Trump. A few called him out on his lack of seriousness on foreign policy, but true to form, Trump deflected rather effectively, and his supporters were unlikely to have been dissuaded.

There also continue to be seemingly large differences between candidates on foreign policy, which likely creates some confusion for voters. And there are still too many people on the debate stage. The field will soon start to whittle down, and hopefully voters will see the candidates engage each other more directly. But overall, it was a fairly good, substantive debate that I doubt changed the field much.

Benjamin Zycher

Cruz's argument that the National Security Agency's metadata program is an unnecessary intrusion on Americans' rights—all we have to do is find and deal with "the bad guys"—rather begs the question, no? How are "the bad guys" to be found among the mountains of hay?

At a more general level, when threats increase, the fundamental trade-off between security and privacy must become more difficult. I think that Rubio has the better of this argument.

Christie's observation that only senators would engage in such an argument about the number of angels that can dance on a pinhead—from a governor who has had to make actual decisions—is an obvious obfuscation. What government will and will not be allowed to do is a fundamental question.

What point, precisely, was Fiorina trying to make with her rather silly observation that men should be asked a question if talk is the objective, while women should be asked if getting something done is the goal? Excuse me? Is Carly now competing with Hillary for the female know-nothing vote?

Cruz argued that we should not level cities, but instead that we should attack the terrorists with precision bombing, with ground personnel used for targeting purposes. And if the terrorists use civilians as shields? I am amazed that this follow-up question was not asked.

Trump wants us to "take the oil." Wow. Send U.S. troops overseas for plunder? How long will the American people support that?

Kasich suggests that we "punch the Russians in the nose." Meaning…what precisely?

Was there a clearer illustration of Trump's general ignorance than his obvious cluelessness about the nuclear triad? His answer: We shouldn't have gone into Iraq, we need to be extremely careful with nuclear weapons, and proliferation is bad. Wow again.

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. Alex Brill is a research fellow at AEI.

Timothy P. Carney is visiting fellow, Culture of Competition Project, at AEI. Mackenzie Eaglen is a resident fellow in the Marilyn Ware Center for Security Studies at AEI. Norman Ornstein served as co-director of the AEI-Brookings Election Reform Project and participates in AEI's Election Watch series. He also served as a senior counselor to the Continuity of Government Commission.

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.