Tuesday night's Fox Business Republican debate didn't provide the drama and excitement that the first Fox News debate and the CNBC debate two weeks ago offered, but it was hardly dull. Marco Rubio and Rand Paul battled on foreign policy, Paul and Donald Trump clashed on trade, and the decline of Jeb Bush continued in typically pathetic form.
It'll take a few days for poll results to trickle in, which will provide the closest thing to an objective answer of who actually won the debate. But in the meantime, here are the candidates who ended the night better off than they started it — and the ones who slipped.
Winner: Marco Rubio
Marco Rubio has been steadily gaining since the October 29 CNBC debate. Then he was at 9.5 percent in the most recent Iowa polls; now he's up to 12.8. His New Hampshire average went from 8.7 percent to 10.3 percent. It's not a lot, but it's something — and combined with Jeb Bush's falling numbers, it suggests he's cornering the establishment Republican vote.
He needed to reinforce that sense in tonight's debate, and he did. He emerged as the most consistent advocate of party orthodoxy on stage. He vigorously challenged Rand Paul's criticisms of defense spending, giving him the upper hand in one of the debate's most memorable moments:
But he also countered Donald Trump's bizarrely pro-Russian take on Syria, strongly attacking the Assad regime and winning over neoconservatives who wish we'd started bombing Syria back in 2011. His line that, "Welders make more money than philosophers. We need more welders and less philosophers," earned liberal ire, which is a bonus in this context, and struck an anti-elite tone without actually threatening the GOP establishment upon whose support he relies. And he avoided having to defend his record on immigration, the one major weakness that could threaten his rise to preferred-insider status.
It wasn't a big, stunning breakout performance. But it's enough to keep him on track to unify insiders and suck up support from Jeb Bush, Carly Fiorina, and John Kasich.
Winner: Rand Paul
Rand Paul notched a win tonight mostly by not being irrelevant. The 2016 race, to date, has been rather humiliating for him. The dream was that Rand would be able to win by building on the coalition that made his father a major contender in 2012, but adding less fringe voters who were turned off by Ron Paul's crankishness. That hasn't transpired at all: Ron's base hasn't materialized for Rand, perhaps because Rand hasn't been the consistent isolationist voice his father was, so Rand is left struggling in the single digits in most polling. And he definitely hasn't been the argumentative flash point his father was; while Ron was great at making himself the center of attention at debates in both 2008 and 2012, Rand didn't stand out at all in the first three debates this cycle.
That changed Tuesday night. Paul got two big moments. First was the confrontation with Rubio. Paul got in some good shots — "Marco, how is it conservative to add a trillion dollar expenditure to the federal government? … You cannot be a conservative if you keep promoting new programs you can't pay for." — but ultimately Rubio had the more appealing answer as far as primary voters are concerned:
We can't even have an economy if we're not safe. There are radical jihadists in the Middle East beheading people and crucifying Christians. A radical Shi'a cleric in Iran is trying to get a nuclear Weapon. The Chinese are taking over the South China Sea. I believe — I don't believe, I know that the world is a safer place when the US is the most powerful military power in the world.
Not a great scene for Paul. But that's almost beside the point. He didn't even factor into debates before now, even as a punching bag for more viable candidates. The Rubio clash made him stand out, and could help him regain some of the isolationist voters who propelled his father.
He also had a memorable clash with Donald Trump, the actual frontrunner to Rubio's presumably-if-the-system-starts-working frontrunner:
After Trump issued a tirade against the Trans-Pacific Partnership trade deal that included a number of references to alleged trade abuses by China, Paul interjected, "You might want to point out China's not part of this deal." Fox Business was clearly aiming to go for a commercial break, but Wall Street Journal editor-in-chief Gerard Baker let him continue and make the case for the deal, an opportunity Paul seized upon, emphasizing, "China doesn't like the deal because the countries doing the deal will be trading with their competitors."
It was a notable moment — Paul got a smattering of applause, and clearly had the better of the fight on the merits (China is, indeed, not in the Trans-Pacific Partnership!).
Paul still has an uphill battle ahead of him, with voters favorable to outsider candidates flocking to Trump and Ben Carson and insiders flocking to Rubio. Carving out support given those dynamics will be tough. But the first step is getting people to pay literally any attention, and Paul accomplished that goal and then some.
Winner: Donald Trump
Trump's in a good place. Only two months before voting starts, he's still leading the polls, having inched back ahead of Ben Carson both nationally and in Iowa. His Saturday Night Live hosting gig was a jolt of free publicity that also earned the program its highest ratings in years. Establishment support seems to be coalescing around Marco Rubio as a "stop Trump/Carson" candidate, but Trump is still polling far ahead of him, and the window for Rubio to catch up is running out.
All he really needed to do was not screw up epically, or not be overshadowed too much by other candidates. He did both. While last debate, Rubio and Ted Cruz outshined him, this time Trump had more than enough standout moments. More importantly, many of the biggest moments for other candidates nonetheless revolved around Trump. Rand Paul's breakout moment on trade was responding to Trump, and Rubio's answer on Syria came after Trump's own aggressive defense of Russia's actions in the country:
This is a totally bizarre position for any US candidate to be taking, given that it's objectively pro–Vladimir Putin and pro–Bashar al-Assad. And it ignores that Putin is bombing anti-ISIS Syrian rebels, not ISIS. But Trump sells the hell out of it as the authentically anti-ISIS stance to take. He did have one major stumble early on in the evening, when he suggested that Americans' wages are too high. Any backlash to that comment is easy to laugh off, though, as the libelous response of a biased media determined to see Trump fail.
Nothing that happened Tuesday night posed an imminent threat to Trump's status as frontrunner. He might not gain ground, but maintaining his position was a win nonetheless.
Loser: Jeb Bush
A few hours before the debate, the top Google search for Jeb Bush was "Is Jeb Bush still running for president?" Bush needed a strong performance to dispel the perception that his campaign is moribund — and while he seemed slightly livelier than in previous debates, he didn't really break through. And a question about bank bailouts led to a bizarre exchange with the moderator, where he seemed to guarantee there would not be another financial crisis and then backtracked:
We should not have another financial crisis. We should raise the capital requirement so banks are not too big to fail. Dodd-Frank has done the opposite. Banks now have higher construction of risk and assets and capital requirements are not high enough. We would raise capital requirement and lessen the load on community banks.
The moderators pressed him: "You can't seriously guarantee there will not be another financial crisis." Bush held strong — "You could if you are serious" — and then backed off: "Never?" "I can't say that."
Other than that, though, he faded into the background for a significant amount of time. He fought the moderators on whether he'd had enough time to speak several times, a sign that he wasn't exactly commanding the stage. At one point, after Bush was steamrolled by Kasich's interruptions and was quibbling about how many minutes he'd been allowed to talk, even Donald Trump interjected, "You should let Jeb speak." That's not a good sign.
Loser: John Kasich
Back in July, Kyle Kondik suggested at Politico that Ohio Gov. John Kasich would be the "Jon Huntsman of 2016." Huntsman, a GOP presidential candidate in 2012, became famous for dismissing and insulting the views of his party's base on a myriad of issues.
Tonight, Kasich proved Kondik right. On immigration, he said the idea of deporting unauthorized immigrants here now was "silly" and "not adult." When the financial crisis of 2008 came up, he took a staunchly pro-bailout position. And he said the Trans-Pacific Partnership was "critical to us."
Kasich paired all this with an especially obnoxious personal style, in which he repeatedly tried to interrupt other candidates and insert himself into exchanges. He may have felt this necessary, since he was polling so poorly. But few commentators believed he came off well. And while focus groups are of course unscientific, Frank Luntz's focus group really, really did not like John Kasich:
My NH focus group is offended by Kasich's interruptions. Really offended Lowest dials of the #GOPdebate – 25. Doesn't get worse than that.— Frank Luntz (@FrankLuntz) November 11, 2015
My #GOPDebate focus group is yelling at the screen. They don't want Kasich to speak. Why, Johnny, why?— Frank Luntz (@FrankLuntz) November 11, 2015
Kasich just scored the lowest ever in my focus group. His support of bailouts "for people who can afford it" scored an 8. #GOPDebate— Frank Luntz (@FrankLuntz) November 11, 2015
Again, we'll have to wait for the polls to know whether Kasich's aggressive presentation and blunt challenges to the GOP base somehow helped him. But this does not bode well.