In the wake of the death of Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia, the six remaining Republican presidential candidates gathered in South Carolina for the 8th GOP debate. I watched – and picked some of the best. Also, some of the worst.
– Marco Rubio: After a disastrous debate a week ago, the Florida Senator proved that his robotic repetition issue was an exception not the rule for him. His answers on potentially problematic questions about the child tax credit and poverty were thoughtful, nuanced and convincing. He managed to emerge as the best defender of George W. Bush’s national security record in a fight against Donald Trump despite the fact that Jeb Bush was also on the stage. Rubio also effectively faced down Ted Cruz on immigration, painting Cruz as a flip-flopper and someone willing to say anything to get elected. Does Rubio still talk a little too fast and sound a little too rehearsed? Yes. But, he clearly helped himself in advance of next Saturday’s South Carolina Republican primary.
– Jeb Bush: Bush, to his credit, has gotten significantly better as a debater over the course of this race. He was the best I have seen him tonight — facing down Trump time and time again and, largely, winning those exchanges. What’s fascinating is that, at least tonight, Bush seemed able to get under Trump’s skin; there were several exchanges, particularly over his brother’s time in office, where Trump seemed to lose his cool while Jeb kept calm and carried on. His regular references to his mom seemed a bit over the top to me but I get that Barbara Bush — and the whole Bush clan — is quite popular in the Palmetto State. One problem for Bush: If he needs to beat Rubio to keep going in this race, I am not sure tonight will help that cause.
– John Dickerson: When you have six candidates on stage and at least four of them (Cruz and Rubio, Trump and Jeb) actively dislike each other, the moderator is going to be under a ton of pressure. I thought Dickerson was outstanding — keeping his wits and humor about him, moving the debate briskly while also allowing disagreements to play out. That performance is how a moderator should aim to act. Sorry Ted Cruz!
– CBS’s video editors: I l-o-v-e-d the highlights from earlier in the debate that CBS ran at the top of the 10 o’clock hour and in and out of commercial breaks. To do that, you need smart and fast video editors. A nice addition to the debate experience — and a reminder of how incredibly nasty it was.
– Professional wrestling: It felt like I was watching an episode of “Monday Night Raw” but on a Saturday night. And yes, I do watch — and love pro wrestling. And, yes, I am almost 40 years old.
– Donald Trump: On the bright side, the entire debate revolved around Trump in a way that past debates have not. (Trump often disappeared into the background as past debates wore on.) On the much less bright side, Trump seemed somewhat out of control and angry for much of the debate. He made his point about the legacy of George W. Bush but the repeated emphasis on how the former president let the terror attacks of Sept. 11, 2001 happen on his watch felt way overdone. Trump, who often comes across as tough yet good-natured, came across on Saturday night as downright mean in several exchanges with Bush and Cruz. (And, as any politician will tell you, it’s tough to make Cruz into an empathetic figure.) Trump’s hard-core supporters will never leave him — no matter how well or badly he does in a debate. And, his hard-core supporters may well be enough to carry him to victory in a week’s time in South Carolina. But, that doesn’t mean Trump was good tonight. He wasn’t.
– The Republican Party: This debate was downright nasty. Tons of name-calling. Lots of quotes that can be harvested by Democrats to be used against whoever emerges from the current bloodbath to be the Republican nominee. Just a bad face to put forward to the public.
Seriously, this is insane.
– Ben Carson: I feel almost bad saying this but Carson shows with every passing debate just how far out of his depth he really is. Carson looks lost when he gets time to speak and his answers very rarely add up to, well, anything.
– Closing statements: Come on, man. What are we even doing out here, man? Instead of closing statements, which are just a chance for the candidates to recite their same-old stump speeches, how about we use those 10 minutes for a lighting round of questions? Don’t tell me a lightning round would be less illuminating than a closing statement. Because, well, that’s not physically possible.