The Fox News debate on January 28th was markedly different from any of the previous debates. The questions were substantive, insults were kept to a minimum, and Jeb Bush finally didn’t look like he had absolutely no idea how to respond to questions and criticisms. All of these factors, plus Donald Trump’s absence, contributed to the policy-centeredness of this debate.
If anyone “won” the debate, it is the one who barely made it onstage: Rand Paul. Even though he leans libertarian and thus loses the support of many conservatives, he came across as a candidate whose chief concerns are following the Constitution and protecting ordinary Americans from an ever-expanding federal government.
Paul also showed his pure, principled nature. He advocated cutting military spending and mostly abstaining from foreign conflicts when, to be blunt, those are not popular positions with the Republican electorate, mainly due to the rise of ISIS. Even if you may disagree with him, his presence brought a healthy debate to many issues that simply would not have been discussed if he had not been there.
Watch Rand Paul’s debate performance here:
Ted Cruz, the highest-polling candidate onstage, had a rough start but managed to finish strong. Most viewers found it distasteful when he complained about the quality of the questions at the beginning of the debate. (This, by the way, supports the notion that Trump may have lost some support by not attending the debate, as it is clear that the voters want to hear substantive answers to tough questions.) However, by the end of the debate, he was showcasing his national-debate-champion skills, as usual. When the questions were more substantive, he explained his detailed plan to repeal Obamacare and, even more impressively, defended his position against ethanol subsidies – a position certainly not naturally advantageous for a candidate who desperately needs to win Iowa.
Marco Rubio faced perhaps the toughest question of the night, as he was hit hard by Megyn Kelly over his support for the infamous 2013 Gang of Eight immigration-reform bill. Rubio, during every previous debate, had managed to evade – or avoid being asked – questions from the moderators about the Gang of Eight. However, when he was finally asked, he attempted to brush the question off as only he could – but I suspect the Iowa voters will remember this and side with Cruz or Trump in Iowa.
In other news, Ben Carson quoted the Constitution in his closing statement like a true patriot, Chris Christie completely evaded a question on whether we should profile Muslims, and John Kasich was… John Kasich.
At this point, the race has effectively become a competition among three viable candidates: Trump, Cruz, and Rubio. In these last few days before Iowa, it is clear that Trump is the favorite for the nomination. To have a chance, Cruz would have to win Iowa to gain momentum heading into New Hampshire, South Carolina, and the “SEC primary” states. For Rubio to remain a possibility, he most likely must beat the other “establishment” candidates – Christie, Kasich, and Bush – in New Hampshire, which is looking unlikely at this point. And if Trump wins Iowa, he may be unstoppable and this whole game may be over – and thus we may be looking at a Trump vs. Clinton or Trump vs. Sanders matchup come November.