Even compared with the anarchic circuses that were the previous Republican presidential debates this election season, Thursday night's installment in Des Moines was a doozy. It was preceded by very public waffling by frontrunner Donald Trump, who threatened to skip and have his own event elsewhere in Des Moines because Fox News moderator Megyn Kelly hurt his feelings at the first debate in August. Fevered negotiations with the network ensued, but eventually he followed through on his threat, holding a bizarre rally featuring fellow candidates and past Iowa caucus winners Mike Huckabee and Rick Santorum, neither of whom actually endorsed Trump.
The result was the first debate of the campaign without its leading candidate, recalling a similar 2000 event in New Hampshire in which George W. Bush refused to participate. That wound up giving John McCain more exposure and helping him win the state. Trump's opponents had no such luck, enduring a raucous evening in which the strongest candidates took big hits and no one made a truly convincing case for himself as the best alternative to Trump.
We won't know who "really" won until poll results trickle in. But in the meantime, here are the candidates who ended the night better off than they started it — and the ones who slipped.
Winner: Donald Trump
The only real winning candidate was the one who wasn't even there. Trump's decision to skip was risky. It could have made him seem flaky, or petty, or unreliable. It could've recalled W's aloof decision to skip that 2000 debate or, worse, Ross Perot's disastrous exit from and then reentrance to the 1992 presidential race. It could've finally led his opponents to convince viewers that they're grown-ups who can run the country and he's a dangerous charlatan.
That did not happen. Not even close. Trump's decision to counterprogram the debate with a rally that was also broadcast nationally (on C-SPAN) effectively gave viewers a choice: You can watch the boring people, or you can watch the deranged carnival that this cartoon rich man puts on. The ratings aren't in yet, but chatter on social media suggested he was drawing away a number of people who otherwise would've been gripped to the debate.
Fox News also made itself look like the vindictive, vicious party in the dispute by spending the entire night gunning for Ted Cruz. Its behavior suggested that it was, as Trump has always alleged, trying to knock out the candidates the Republican establishment has declared unacceptable. That helps Trump's case, and it makes Fox look biased and, even worse, pathetic. Trump showed that the debate networks really do need him, and that his threats to exit debates must be taken seriously. Fox thought it was calling his bluff, but he wasn't bluffing at all. He actually does have the upper hand.
Even better, no single non-Trump candidate emerged at the debate as the obvious consensus alternative to him. One could imagine a debate where, say, Cruz wiped the floor with his opponents and set up the primary as a binary choice between him and Trump. You could even imagine a strong Rubio performance that gave him a late surge and a chance at second in Iowa and New Hampshire.
None of that happened. What happened instead was a flurry of harsh internecine attacks, which damaged Trump's enemies and left none of them in a really great position. The takeaway for Republican viewers wasn't, "Candidate X clearly is the best non-Trump candidate." It was, "These guys have all sold us out on immigration and Trump called them on their bullshit by leaving."
Winner: Jeb Bush
No one is more surprised to be praising a Jeb debate performance than me. And let's be clear, it wasn't good. It wasn't a game-changing performance that makes him the favorite to come second to Trump in New Hampshire. It was still overly hesitant and unconfident, and Jeb still doesn't have a compelling case for why people should pick him out of the crowded field.
But he nonetheless ended the night better than he started. While his embrace of his parents — including calling his father "the greatest man alive" and saying he "adores" his brother — was still awkward, he owned it for the first time instead of running away from it. He stopped hoping people will forget about the only reason normal people have even heard of a dude who stopped being governor of Florida 10 years ago, and leaned into it, bringing up his family repeatedly and positively. Bush lovers may not be a majority of primary voters. But they're Jeb's natural demographic, and he finally started courting them.
Even better, though, was Bush's clash with Marco Rubio. Here he was helped by moderator Megyn Kelly, who served up a devastating video montage of Rubio promising as a Senate candidate to never support a "pathway to citizenship" for unauthorized immigrants — all before helping craft an immigration bill that included such a path in 2013.
Bush responded not just by condemning Rubio as a hypocrite, but by telling a version of the history where he's a consistent supporter of legalizing unauthorized immigrants:
I'm kind of confused because he was the sponsor of the Gang of Eight bill that did require a bunch of thresholds but ultimately allowed for citizenship over an extended period of time. I mean, that's a fact. And he asked me to support that. And I supported him because I think when you're elected you need to do things, and he led the charge to finally fix this immigration problem that has existed now for, as Marco says, 30 years. Then he cut and run because it wasn't popular amongst conservatives, I guess.
Bush isn't trying to have it both ways here. He knows he's lost the hardcore anti-immigration vote. So he owned his immigration-sympathetic record and minimized his fluctuations (supporting a pathway to citizenship, then writing a book that supports "legalization" but not citizenship, now suggesting he's comfortable with both), casting himself as a reliable supporter of sensible reform and Rubio as a fair-weather advocate who fled when the going got tough.
Rubio tried to turn the attack around on Bush, insisting, "It's interesting Jeb mentions the book, that's the book where you changed your position on immigration, because you used to support a path to citizenship." Bush replied with a smile: "So did you. So did you, Marco," to the crowd's applause.
Bush is still a long shot. But he gave his best debate performance to date, by a mile.
Winner: Rand Paul
Rand Paul barely made the cut for this debate, having declined to participate at all in the last one because he'd been knocked to the "undercard" debate with the likes of Rick Santorum and Carly Fiorina. And he's still not likely to get anywhere once voting starts on Monday. His odds are even worse than Jeb's.
But he seized on his last real chance to make his case to a national audience, and he made the most of it. Early on, when asked about his father, he got a chance to remind the supporters who rocketed Ron Paul to second in Iowa and New Hampshire in 2012 that he's still one of them, that he still views himself as a champion of the "Liberty Movement."
Better yet, because the moderators had asked if Paul or Ted Cruz was the true Ron Paul successor in the race, Cruz spoke about Ron glowingly, emphasizing, "I very much respect Ron Paul." Rand also got to attack Cruz for not being present to support an "audit the Fed" bill — a key Ron Paul cause — and for his comments in favor of bulk NSA data collection. Cruz's response was a meek, "The Fed bill was going to pass anyway"; he couldn't go meaner without seeming to insult the Ron Paul legacy.
The whole exchange was a big win for Rand. He got in un-rebutted attacks on Cruz, who's faring far better than him on every metric, and then got Cruz to praise the Paul family name as well.
Even better, though, were his comments on criminal justice:
One thing I discovered in Ferguson was that a third of the budget for the city of Ferguson was being reaped by civil fines. People were just being fined to death. Now you and I and many of the people in this audience, if we get a $100 fine, we can survive it. If you're living on the edge of poverty and you get a $100 fine or your car towed, a lot of times you lose your job.
I also think the war on drugs has disproportionately affected our African-American community. What we need to do is make sure that the war on drugs is equal protection under the law and we don't unfairly incarcerate another generation of young African-American males. In Ferguson, for every 100 African-American women, there are only 60 African-American men. Drug use is about equal between white and black, but our prisons, three out of four people in prison are black or brown.
I think something has to change. I think it's a big thing that our party needs to be part of. And I've been a leader in Congress on trying to bring about criminal justice reform.
This is probably the sharpest thing a Republican has said about criminal justice this entire election. It's substantive, tackling discrete problems like civil asset forfeiture and disparities in drug sentences, and it doesn't attempt to in any way excuse deep racial inequalities in the system. It's a reminder of why at the start of his run many commenters thought Paul had a unique ability to reach out to young voters and voters of color. He really does get these issues more than his opponents.
Paul also got in one more good good dig at Cruz:
What is particularly insulting, though, is that he is the king of saying, "Oh, you're for amnesty. Everybody's for amnesty except for Ted Cruz." But it's a falseness. And that's an authenticity problem — that everybody he knows is not as perfect as him, because we're all for amnesty.
It was a concise explanation of why all of Cruz's Senate colleagues hate him so very deeply. Cruz has made a career out of being the One True Pure Republican, and it annoys the hell out of people who should be his allies on the issues. And his attitude is transparent enough that voters watching the debate likely saw what Paul was talking about.
Paul is almost definitely not going to win this primary. But he really gave it his all and, like Bush, turned in his best debate performance of the cycle.
Loser: Ted Cruz
If Trump's antics had wound up backfiring, Cruz would've been the clear winner. He's a pretty close second to Trump in Iowa and a much less close second in New Hampshire, and he appeals to the same anti-establishment base that Trump does.
At the debate's outset, Cruz was faring pretty well. He and Megyn Kelly got in some good joshing at the expense of Donald Trump:
Now, secondly, let me say I'm a maniac and everyone on this stage is stupid, fat, and ugly. And Ben, you're a terrible surgeon. Now that we've gotten the Donald Trump portion out of the way — [ laughter ][ Applause ] I want to thank everyone here for showing the men and women of Iowa the respect to show up and make the case to the people of this state and the people of the country why each of us believe we would make the best commander in chief.
The high-minded "let's get beyond the attacks and just make our cases to the people" posture was cloying and unpersuasive coming from a guy who loves to eviscerate his intraparty rivals, but overall it was a pretty good joke and a reasonably good attempt to address Trump, whom Kelly aptly called "the elephant not in the room."
Cruz and Kelly's later interactions weren't as pleasant. The questions she, Chris Wallace, and Bret Baier asked seemed largely meant to tear Cruz down. They asked him to reconcile his tough talk on fighting ISIS with his opposition to giving Obama the authority to fight in Syria in 2013. They asked Chris Christie to attack Cruz for voting to reform the NSA and limit surveillance. They asked Jeb Bush about his foreign policy attacks on Cruz. It was one Cruz-targeted question after another.
Eventually Cruz noticed, objecting, "Chris, I would note that the last four questions have been Rand, please attack Ted, Jeb, please attack Ted," only to be booed by the crowd. Even if the crowd wasn't feeling the establishmentarian tone of the question, they didn't like Ted Cruz the whiner either.
And Fox didn't let up. Kelly asked Cruz about the 2013 amendment he authored that would've stripped the path to citizenship from the Gang of Eight immigration reform bill but still given immigrants a chance to obtain legal status. This has come up in past debates, and Cruz has defended his anti-immigration bona fides by insisting that the amendment was a poison pill, meant to eliminate any chance of the overall bill passing.
So Fox put together a video montage of Cruz insisting at the time that it wasn't a poison pill, that he really did want the reform package to pass, and that the amendment was designed to make passage more likely.
The intention was clear: to make it seem like Cruz had come out for legalization, just like Jeb Bush, just like Marco Rubio. This is not a super fair characterization of Cruz's views, which are definitely to the right of Bush and Rubio on immigration. But it's a very effective line attack against Cruz, especially when backed up with hard-to-dispute video evidence.
Cruz's performance wasn't a disaster. He didn't make any huge campaign-ending gaffes. But when his campaign most needed a boost going into the final stretch of Iowa campaigning, he put in a decidedly subpar performance, largely because the moderators had knives out for him. He needed much better to regain the momentum and position himself to beat Trump come Monday.
Loser: Marco Rubio
Fox News's antipathy for Cruz makes sense. The moderators were also targeting Donald Trump in the first debate, and have a demonstrated preference for more establishment-oriented candidates. All of which made it more surprising when the most devastating question of the evening was posed to Marco Rubio.
Just as they'd later do with Cruz, the moderators showed Rubio a video montage of himself, as a 2010 Senate candidate, promising he'd never support a pathway to citizenship, even insisting that an "earned path to citizenship is basically code for amnesty." Of course, Rubio did support such a path in 2013.
Rubio's defense was beyond pathetic. What he meant, he insisted, was that the 2006-'07 attempts at immigration reform in the Senate had included pathways to citizenship that were too lenient, so much so that they amounted to amnesty. But his pathway to citizenship was of course very different, so he didn't reverse himself at all.
It's unclear who was supposed to find this at all convincing. It came across as a desperate attempt to justify a flip-flop — in this case a double flip-flop, as Rubio would later flip back against a pathway to citizenship. It was perhaps the debate's most memorable moment, and it was an utter disaster for Marco Rubio.
To top it off, Jeb Bush got in on the action, and his "so did you" rejoinder was maybe the most effective attack of the night, with Rubio as the target.
Beyond that, Rubio's demeanor the entire evening was bizarre, characterized by nervous fast talking and super-quick transitions between topics, which made him seem like a manic rambler.
Between Bush's unusually good performance, Rubio's unusually bad one, and the establishment-friendly moderators' seeming grudge against Rubio, the debate might be seen as the point in which Marco Rubio relinquished the mantle of "most viable establishment candidate" and Bush reclaimed it.
Loser: Fox News
Man, Fox News just got clowned.
The network lost the main attraction of the debate before it even started. It lost viewers to the sideshow that attraction put together instead. It lost a highly public game of chicken with Trump, attempting to show that he needed Fox more than Fox need him but proving the exact opposite.
It's easy to imagine a universe where Trump came out looking flighty and Fox News came out looking responsible. But in our universe, Trump clearly humiliated them while suffering no costs to himself.
It's worse than that, though. Not only did Fox News lose its standoff with Trump, it went on to spend the debate attacking Ted Cruz very heavily — the main effect of which is to weaken Trump's strongest competition right before the Iowa caucuses.
Trump managed to pull off an aikido-esque move wherein he redirected Fox News's firepower away from himself and onto Cruz. And it worked as well as he could've possibly imagined. He's really, really good at this game.
Just on substantive terms, the debate was among the most poorly moderated of this primary season. Kelly, Wallace, and Baier didn't ask much in the way of follow-up questions. They instead just confronted each candidate with a question, let other candidates respond if they were mentioned by name, and then moved on. With the notable exception of Rand Paul's answer on racial justice, there wasn't much policy substance to go around. And while the moderators' video clips were indeed devastating, there's something hostile and unprofessional about using them to attack Rubio and Cruz while leaving other candidates untouched.
Going into the debate, the big question was whether Donald Trump or Fox News would come out looking better. Trump won that competition, and it wasn't even close.