When is it bad to be a frontrunner? During a presidential debate three days before the New Hampshire primary, evidently. At Saturday night’s forum in Manchester, Marco Rubio, Ted Cruz, and Donald Trump all hit rough patches, while three often-overshadowed governors—Chris Christie, Jeb Bush, and John Kasich—delivered some of their strongest moments of the campaign so far.
Rubio, surging nationwide and in New Hampshire, believed he had a target pinned to his back coming in, and he was right. Christie was the hatchet man, coming after Rubio in the earliest moments of the debate and never letting up. (At one point, Christie even pivoted from responding to an attack by John Kasich to slam Rubio.) Christie jabbed that Rubio, as a senator, doesn’t have the executive experience needed to be president, citing Barack Obama as a cautionary tale. Rubio was ready with an answer to that: “This notion that Barack Obama doesn't know what he's doing?” he said. “He knows exactly what he's doing.” Rubio isn’t the only candidate to suggest that Obama is more evil genius than bumbling fool—Ted Cruz has done the same—but the crowd wasn’t buying it. Maybe Rubio’s phrasing was just too clever.
But when Christie mocked the idea, Rubio started repeating it—paving the way for Christie’s most devastating line, an accusation that Rubio just repeats talking points: “There it is, the memorized 25-second speech.” Rubio has a tendency to revert to his stump speech during debates, a technique that earned him high marks in past debates. But Christie’s line was devastating. Rubio responded by, um, repeating the same line about Obama almost verbatim several more times within the next few minutes.
Rubio also hit a tough spot when discussing comprehensive immigration reform. The Gang of Eight bill, which he backed and then backed away from, has always been one of his greatest political vulnerabilities, but it caused him particular discomfort tonight. Rubio has been forced to admit that he helped push the bill while also acknowledging that it is deeply unpopular with Republican voters, so he says now that the border has to be secure before reform happens. That requires him to contort himself into nonsensical statements: “The legislation passed, but it has no support." Here again, Christie jumped on Rubio for failing to deliver on a policy he pushed. “I fought, and I fought, and I fought, and I won,” the New Jersey governor said.
Moderator Martha Raddatz prodded Rubio on his claim that ISIS is the most dangerous group to face the U.S., asking whether that means the U.S. should spend as much fighting ISIS as it did the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. Late in the debate, Bush and Christie tag-teamed to criticize Rubio for saying that he opposed abortion even in the case of rape, incest, or the mother’s life, a position they say is too extreme and would turn off voters.
Ted Cruz won an upset victory in Iowa, but hasn’t seen nearly as much loft as he’d hoped, and New Hampshire is less-friendly territory for him. He also had a tough debate. Early on, the moderators asked him about rumors spread by his staffers on the night of the Iowa caucus that Ben Carson was on the verge of dropping out. Cruz apologized to Carson on stage, and he blamed the rumor on a CNN report. Carson, in perhaps his only display of killer instinct in any debate, nailed Cruz. He accepted the apology, invoked Reagan’s 11th commandment—“Thou shalt not speak ill of a fellow Republican”—then pointed out that Cruz’s claims about what CNN reported were wrong. (CNN eagerly did the same.)
Cruz stumbled again later when asked about ISIS. He has called for “carpet-bombing,” a tactic that most experts think wouldn’t do much against ISIS, a diffuse, geographically scattered force. Cruz has no good answer to that question, and Raddatz kept asking it again, showing the flaws in his tough talk about terror. The real question for Cruz is what level of collateral damage he’s willing to accept among innocent people held hostage by ISIS, and he doesn’t want to answer it. Cruz also couldn’t explain how he intended to deport the nearly 11 million undocumented immigrants in the country. Pressed on his deportation plan, he mainly just ticked off ways to secure the border.
Cruz’s best moment came during a discussion of opiate addiction, as he told the story of his half-sister Miriam, who died of a drug overdose. The Texas senator is such a polished debater than he often leaves emotion behind, and this was a raw, genuine moment. (It would have been stronger if the concluding policy proposal for fighting addiction had been something more than simply securing the border.)
Trump, in his return to the debate stage after boycotting the last meeting, didn’t have a great night either. In one of the debate’s more interesting moments, he was asked about past praise for eminent domain, a tactic he’s used to gain land for his development projects. Trump argued that eminent domain is an essential tool for building roads, bridges, and hospitals—true, but utterly beside the point, since he was using it for his own private gain. Bush leapt in to point out the inconsistency, irking Trump, who sniped, “Let me talk. Quiet." The crowd booed lustily—which Trump claimed was the result of a hall full of GOP insiders and special interests, which naturally only elicited more boos. (Trump might not be wrong about that.) It was one of Bush’s most effective moments in any debate so far.
Discussing healthcare, Trump said, “We're gonna take care of people who are dying on the street.... I think everyone on this stage would agree: You're not gonna let people die." That’s an interesting mirror image of the 2011 Tea Party debate, where members of the audience cheered the idea of letting uninsured people die. But otherwise, Trump was often a non-factor.
Viewers might have known that Ben Carson was in for a rough night from the start of the debate, when the retired neurosurgeon either forgot or refused to leave the wings as candidates were introduced and his name was called. Carson was often quiet for long stretches, and when he did speak, it was often borderline incoherent, whether he was discussing Libya policy or the Zika virus.
One reason that Carson was so often quiet, perhaps, was that the debate was surprisingly focused on foreign policy. In addition to the ISIS questions, the candidates weighed in on reports of a North Korean missile launch. Cruz said he couldn’t say whether he would have preemptively attacked the launch site without having seen the intelligence the president had. (Raddatz, strangely, tried to make him answer anyway. It was a rare off moment in an otherwise stellar performance from Raddatz, who is cementing her status as the nation’s premiere debate moderator. Co-host David Muir could take some tips from her.) Jeb Bush, in an echo of his brother’s eponymous doctrine, endorsed a preemptive strike. Kasich also suggested prodding Japan toward striking North Korea, which would be a violation of the country’s U.S.-backed post-World War II constitution.
Later in the debate, the moderators asked whether waterboarding is torture, as almost every legal authority holds, and whether they would employ it. Cruz, Trump, and Rubio all said they could imagine situations in which they would waterboard people; Trump, in fact, said he would do "a hell of a lot worse,” arguing that ISIS’s “medieval” approach demanded that the U.S. adopt similarly medieval responses. Bush, however, demurred.
What does it all mean? Saturday night’s debate was the revenge of the establishment governors—Christie, Bush, and Kasich. Those three have been battling for a “lane” in the nomination battle—against each other, for the one spot (at most) for someone like them; against Rubio, still trying to lock up the establishment support; and against the outsiders Cruz and Trump. Can the debate change their fortunes? It wasn’t a great night for the Trump-Rubio-Cruz triumvirate leading the polls, but will that stall Rubio’s rise? Will it accelerate Trump’s slide? And will it vault any of the governors into the top tier? We’ll find out Tuesday.