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A Rough Night for the Frontrunners

The three leading candidates—Trump, Cruz, and Rubio—stumbled, as the governors in the race made their presence felt.

David Goldman / AP

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.

David Graham

Updates

This live blog has concluded

This debate didn’t seem very consequential to me. Everyone on TV is saying that Marco Rubio did terrible. That wasn’t my takeaway. If anyone helped himself I would guess Jon Kasich, if only because he seemed to get more speaking time tonight than normal. I can imagine the Donald Trump exchange on eminent domain hurting him, especially if it’s packaged into television attack ads. And it seems perfectly suited for that.

Trump: Cruz won because he cheated, by the way. (Boo!) We don't win anymore. CHINA. Trade. We will win, and we will win, and we will win.

Cruz: When have any of you stood up to Washington? I won Iowa despite being against their precious ethanol. Let's get back to the Constitution

Marco Rubio mentions his kids. The camera flashes to them, reminding everyone in the audience how awful it would be to have their parent run for president.

Rubio: I will unite the party and unite the country and defeat Hillary to make America great again.

Carson: The pundits have tried to bury me. They say politics is too hard, but I'm still here. Faith, integrity, common sense.

These closing messages, tonight, are substantially more upbeat than in some other recent debates, placing less emphasis on challenges or threats and more on possibilities and opportunities.

Jeb Bush: Ronald Reagan was a great president. (Going out on a limb there.) We need a proven candidate.

Christie: I was the governor of New Jersey. But I've spent a lot of time in New Hampshire lately! Let me solve your problems.

Kasich: Town halls are fun. I’m offering a conservative message, but a positive message. New Hampshire, please give me a chance!

Super Bowl predictions from the candidates: Kasich—Carolina, Bush—Denver, Carson—one of the two teams, Rubio—Carolina, Trump—Carolina, Christie—Denver

Bad news, Peyton: Only Jeb Bush and Chris Christie are willing to say that Denver will win tomorrow, and Jeb only said so because Manning endorsed him.

Christie brings up the false claim that Planned Parenthood is selling body parts on the open market.

Multiple candidates have had a chance to discuss abortion and reproductive rights, and none have discussed their likely appointment of a potentially pivotal justice to the Supreme Court.

As the moderator notes, Christie's campaign has been attacking Rubio for his no-exceptions stance on abortion. It's an oddity of the center-right electorate in New Hampshire that one Republican can attack another for being too conservative on social issues.

Jeb Bush says his view on abortion is in the "sweet spot" for a Republican nominee: He's pro-life, but believes in exceptions for the life of the mother, rape and incest.

Donald Trump reminds us what he did instead of participating in the last GOP debate in response to a question about veterans, touting the nearly $6 million raised for them at an event he hosted.

"We need to be a party and a people that make sure that our women in this country understand anything they can dream, anything that they want to aspire to, they can do. That's the way we raise our daughters, and that's what we should aspire to as president for all the women in our country," Christie says. It's a hopeful line made a bit awkward by the fact that Christie chose to say "our women."

"I have no problem whatsoever with people of either gender serving in combat," Rubio says, "I support that." Rubio adds that if a draft is ever instituted it should be opened up to both men and women.

Judge our military by its size, do you? There’s a vigorous debate to be had about the proper size and scale of the American military, but it can’t rest on facile claims like those offered by Senator Rubio, that the services are smaller than they’ve ever been. A single Zumwalt-class destroyer packs more firepower than an entire World War Two task force. Does that mean our spending is adequate? Not necessarily. But it should be a debate about capabilities, not counting ships or planes.

Once again, we're seeing a split here between senators and governors, with those like Kasich and Christie, who've actually had to run a state, stressing the need for cooperation on matters from police violence to Islamaphobia.

Carson, a medical doctor, says "if we have evidence" that people are infected, and evidence that it can spread by individuals' particular behavior, those people should be quarantined. But "willy-nilly" quarantining isn't good.

Christie said "build bridges.”

Martha Raddatz asks Chris Christie about the Zika virus, which the WHO has declared a public health emergency. Would he quarantine people? “You bet I will,” Christie says.

David Muir offers a good line of questioning here, asking candidates to explain how they would bridge the divide between law enforcement and communities skeptical and suspicious of it. Much better than asking candidates to pick sides.

Is Donald Trump of all people complaining about an excessively litigious society?

Donald Trump: “The police are absolutely mistreated and misunderstood.” I wonder how many former NYPD officers he has employed as private security.

Trump: "There is a divide, but I have to say that the police are absolutely mistreated and misunderstood." He complains that police killings are overcovered. The crucial distinction here, as always, is that police are officers of the state, endowed with a monopoly on force. Trump also endorses the Ferguson effect as real.

Some Republican rapid-response operation is working particularly quickly tonight, setting up a new Twitter handle—@RubioGlitch—to mock the Florida senator for using versions of the same line four times in rapid succession. We're going to hear much more about this before the voting starts in New Hampshire on Tuesday:

To be fair, Conor, if I were running I'd also feel it was pretty important

If there’s one thing presidential candidates agree on it’s that the election they’re running in isn’t just a normal presidential election, it’s a “turning point” election, or even “the most important election in a generation."

I don’t think you can change the narrative that Hillary Clinton would be the first woman president. It’s a fact!

Trump makes an electability argument, saying that if you look at the polls he does very well against Hillary Clinton. How well does that line hold up though now that he lost in the first primary nominating contest in Iowa?

Pretty good question from Larry O'Connor: Hillary Clinton would be an historic candidate because she's a woman, and voters like historic candidates. How would you turn that narrative around?

Mexican cartels are turning to opiates because so many states are legalizing marijuana. But the truth is it starts with prescriptions and ends with street drugs.

A heartfelt answer by Ted Cruz, but there’s no way anyone is going to secure the border so tightly that heroin is no longer present on America’s streets. To think otherwise is to have the same delusion as generations of drug warriors who’ve catastrophically mismanaged U.S. drug policy.

This is a powerful story from Cruz, about his half-sister, who died of a drug overdose. I can't think of any moment when Cruz has seemed so human and real, instead of his typical polish.

Bush lumps the governors together in their approach to infrastructure. “I trust Kasich and Christie to build the roads in their states,” Bush says, instead of the federal government.

Kasich touts "pleading with people" to get things done, but he's also got an overwhelmingly Republican state legislature in Ohio.

Trump invokes Reagan's relationship with Tip O'Neill. It's hard to imagine a Democratic House speaker developing a similar rapport with the mogul.

Smart point, Molly—though it's far more likely that President Cruz would have a Republican Congress than that President Sanders would have a liberal Democratic one.

How would Trump work with Congress? “Grab ‘em, hug ‘em, kiss ‘em, and get the deal done!” Well now, presumably, we know the methods Trump would employ that are worse than waterboarding.

That was a remarkably Bernie Sanders-like answer from Ted Cruz on the question of how he'd get Congress to do his bidding: The people will give him a mandate by electing him in an overwhelming wave

Bush makes the case for more surveillance: "What we need to do is make sure that we are kept safe by having intelligence capabilities, both human and technological intelligence capabilities far superior than what we have today. That's how you get a more safe place."

Just to summarize, three Republican candidates—Cruz, Trump, and Rubio—would bring back the use of waterboarding, a torture tactic. Jeb Bush would not.

How do you not ask the obvious follow-up question: what would Trump bring back that's "a hell of a lot worse than waterboarding"?

Since Gitmo isn’t closed I’m curious to hear in what sense Jeb Bush thinks “it’s a complete disaster."

"I'd bring back waterboarding, and I'd bring back a hell of a lot worse than waterboarding," Trump says to applause.

Cruz says he wouldn't use waterboarding as a general tactic. The crowd boos. He pauses, regroups, then says that he would use it to prevent imminent attacks. Conor has written well about the falsity of the ticking timebomb scenario.

This is the first question about torture that I’ve heard in any debate so far. Cruz calls waterboarding “enhanced interrogation.” But hesitates in whether he would bring it back.

Ted Cruz says waterboarding is not torture.

Improbably, Trump manages to tie his strategy to defeat ISIS back to his Wall Street credentials. Trump claims there are "people that you think are our great allies, our friends, in the Middle East, that are paying tremendous amounts of money to ISIS." He says we have "to stop those circuits," promising "nobody knows banking better than I do." Who says domestic affairs can't double as foreign policy expertise?

Carson explains that North Africa is under the Mediterranean. Quiz later.

"I think I was the first one to start talking about [Libya]," Carson says, incorrectly.

There are many things that Bernie Sanders and Donald Trump share this cycle--they're both outsiders, both successfully channel frustration, and they're both far ahead in New Hampshire. One less-remarked-upon similarity? They're both materialists. Trump, like Sanders, tends to think that economic factors are what really matter. His answer to ISIS? Cut off their funds, bomb their oil, and they'll run out of cash in a year. But unlike the other on the stage, he's conspicuously silent about religion and ideology.

It's unfortunate to see Rubio committing himself to the purely sectarian explanation for Middle Eastern conflict.

A fundamental challenge facing Rubio tonight? Even when he improvises, he sounds like he's delivering a practiced speech. That's often worked well for him, making him sound polished and mature. But with his rivals drawing attention to his affinity for practiced soundbites, it's now working against him, making him seem inauthentic.

Good question from Martha Raddatz about why Cruz thinks carpetbombing would help defeat ISIS—a very different force from the Iraqi Army that it defeated in 1991. Experts widely agree that it wouldn't work against ISIS. Cruz has been asked the question before, but he still doesn't have a good answer. His plan for what to do against ISIS is almost exactly Obama's plan: Bomb oil refineries and military targets. The real question here is what risks you take about killing innocent civilians, and Cruz hasn't made any attempt to answer that question.

Some day, Ted Cruz’s comments on carpet-bombing will be taught in courses on political communication. He should’ve walked them back shortly after they were originally made. Instead, he’s persisted in his attempt to make ‘carpet bombing’ mean something wholly novel—more closely resembling targeted strikes. And the harder he tries to do that, the worse he comes off.

Cruz's argument that "carpet-bombing" can be precision bombing is self-negating.

"I'd like to see more millionaires," Bush says. Wonder how that line strikes a typical middle-class voter.

The way these Republicans are talking about Barack Obama approaches lunacy. It’s as if they’ve never encountered a very mainstream Democrat before.

Another thing: Rubio's rivals charge that he's a robot who can't go off script, and in response Rubio is ... repeating the same talking point over and over again throughout the debate.

There was a way for Rubio to pull off that argument, David, but he’s botched it. By this time tomorrow, I fully expect the Granite State’s airwaves to be saturated with clips of Rubio saying, “Obama knows what he’s doing.”

I would have thought that Rubio's argument that Obama is an evil genius rather than an oblivious fool would go over well, but it doesn't really seem to be connecting with the audience in the house—or with his rivals, though maybe,_maybe_, they're being disingenuous.

How single-minded is Christie's attack on Rubio tonight? Given a question premised on John Kasich insulting his record in New Jersey, he pivots to attack Rubio.

Christie speaks to the veterans waiting for health care, asks them if they agree with Rubio that Obama knows what he's doing. Ouch.

Trump's jobs plan: Not so much creating new ones, but more like repatriating them from China, Japan, and Mexico.

David Muir asked Trump to say how many jobs he'd create in his first term. Why? Whatever he says, the answer is out of his control; and besides, the only way to know whether it's true or not is if he gets elected.

Trump’s redefinition of conservatism around the word ‘conserve’—conserve our wealth, conserve our country—is an odd echo of Hillary Clinton’s move on Thursday to define progressivism around ‘progress.’ Whatever the merits of their cases, they seem unlikely to win over those who adhere to more ideological definitions.

Trump defines "conservatism" using its root word: "We want to conserve our money, we want to conserve our wealth. ... We want to conserve our country, we want to save our country."

I hate these  “what is a conservative” questions. One lesson of this campaign cycle is that most Republican primary voters aren’t picking based on that metric. Can’t we just part with the conceit and ask people, “What personal philosophy will you bring to the job?"

The moderators say they're going to "turn now to what it means to be a conservative." Should be interesting to see the Republicans put forward their own definitions of conservatism, especially given that on the Democratic side, Bernie Sanders and Hillary Clinton are currently fighting it out over what it means to be a progressive.

Man, the Kasich quote that David Muir just read to him—including a promise to change the definition of conservatism—is pretty bad. Equal parts incoherent and calculated to turn off conservative audiences.

The debate-as-football-game, cutting to the commentators during the timeouts to shape how the audience is seeing the drama on-stage, continues to feel bizarre. Why not let voters watch, and make up their own minds?

Trump says we there's a lot of donors in the audience and that's why the audience isn't loving him. He's been getting booed quite a bit, including when he attempted to shush Jeb Bush just now.

Pretty nice move by Trump there, turning the audience that's booing him into a proxy for the Republican establishment. (He's not wrong!)

This is a debate version of eminent domain—Trump is bulldozing Jeb Bush, and taking the time allotted to his fellow candidates, using it for his own purposes.

You can almost hear heads explode at conservative and libertarian think-tanks across D.C. as the GOP frontrunner gives a rousing defense of eminent domain.

Trump to Bush: "Let me talk. Quiet." Crowd boos at length.

Jeb Bush points out that Donald Trump used eminent domain for a real estate development, not a public purpose.

Donald Trump: “The Keystone Pipeline without eminent domain wouldn’t go ten feet.” Take that conservatives! But the idea that everyone who is subject to it gets fair market value is nonsense.

Trump defends eminent domain: "Eminent domain is an absolute necessity for a country. Without it you wouldn’t have roads, you wouldn’t have hospitals, you wouldn’t have bridges." But of course that's beside the point: When Trump was using it (and praising it) it was for his own private development projects.

"I was hoping to get a chance to talk about North Korea," Carson says, "I've got some stuff to say about it let me tell ya." Seems somewhat improbable for a candidate who has so often struggled to articulate a foreign policy agenda. Nevertheless, Carson leaves us in suspense, pivoting to health care instead.

Trump has to answer for a health-care plan that doesn't really exist. He's said in the past that government will pay for everyone's health care. Tonight, he says he'll repeal Obamacare, and replace it with something better. It'll be based on "free-enterprise" and "competition" and health-care savings plans. "We're going to take care of people dying on the street."

Trump: "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." Does he remember four years ago when, during a Republican debate, a crowd cheered specifically for that very thing?

Sparse applause for Trump, even when he says that he's going to repeal Obamacare. Tough crowd for him tonight.

Trump: "Insurance companies are getting rich on Obamacare."

That was some really tricky use of the passive voice by Rubio, who repeatedly argued that the legislation that he worked on was obviously doomed from the start.

If I were a New Hampshire voter struggling to find an adequately paid job, or looking at a growing pile of bills, or worrying that my own children might not have the opportunities I enjoyed? I think I might be baffled by this debate. It’s an hour in, and there’s been some discussion of foreign policy, and a lot of discussion about politics and leadership—but remarkably little effort to address the basic economic anxieties at the forefront of many voters’ minds.

David Muir pushes Ted Cruz on immigration. “What you do is enforce the law,” Cruz says, but doesn’t go much further than that. It’s been a common theme in these debates. Candidates agree that something has to be done, but struggle with defining what exactly they’d do.

"I fought, and I fought, and I fought, and I won." Strong Christie here.

Saying that the American people will support “a reasonable but responsible approach” is kind of hilarious.

Every time the comprehensive immigration bill comes up, Rubio's answer is that the bill can't pass. That's clearly true, but it's an interesting attempt at a defense.

President Obama has been jailing people caught illegally reentering the country in federal prisons at a much higher rate than any prior president.

“We have to have practical solutions,” Kasich says, in regard to immigration, later invoking the pathos associated with immigration by adding he can’t imagine pulling apart a family that hasn’t committed a crime. His response exposes the principled disagreements in the immigration debate in the GOP , as it has in previous debates.

Note that the question to Cruz was about how he'd go about deporting illegal immigrants. He offered a lot of ways to strengthen border security, but he offered no plan whatsoever for actually getting 11-plus million undocumented immigrants out of the country.

John Kasich is the Jon Huntsman of this election: a perfectly conservative guy with a moderate temperament who values pragmatism. And the GOP electorate isn’t much interested in him. It wants red meat.

"Just like we lock our doors at night, the country has to be able to lock its doors," Kasich says, as he talks about securing the borders.

It's a bizarre spectacle to see a stage full of Republicans first venerate President Ronald Reagan, and then announce that they would never ransom hostages. Was Iran-Contra really so very long ago?

Jeb Bush: America needs to “get back in the game.” Call it the battle cry of the National Greatness Conservatives.

I can't believe Ben Carson doesn't want to jump in and share his views on this foreign-policy  exchange!

China feels about North Korea the way Margaret Thatcher felt about East Germany: they had no love for the regime, but feared what would happen after it fell more than the ongoing nightmare.

Trump: China has "practically absolute control of North Korea."

You can count on Trump to bring the brute force to an attempt at nuance. He begs to disagree with Rubio's idea that Obama knows what he's doing.

There we go: a Bush calling for a preemptive strike!

Kasich suggests letting Japan take the offensive against North Korean missiles, which would violate Article 9 of Japan's constitution that explicitly forbids aggressive military action.

Christie contrasts his governorship with first-termer Rubio: "You have not been involved in a consequential decision where you had to be held accountable."

Rubio is turning around a question about whether he's too inexperienced effectively, saying that Obama hasn't been ineffective—he's been _too_ effective in passing liberal policies.

Marco Rubio is asked about his inexperience as a first term senator… as he stands beside Trump, Carson, and first-term Senator Ted Cruz.

Carson just effectively debunked Cruz's excuse for the rumors in Iowa, noting that CNN quickly clarified it's report to make it known that Carson was simply headed home for a day, not quitting his campaign. Not a good exchange for Cruz, despite his apparently forthright apology.

Carson’s not buying Cruz’s explanation about the CNN report. “The bottom line is, we can see what happened, everyone can see what happened, and we can make our own judgement."

Ted Cruz gives a long, elaborate explanation of his Iowa team’s conduct, pleading ignorance. But it won’t wash. The senator is running for president of the United States, and blaming his campaign staff for the incident seems like less than a model of leadership. It was his campaign. It could easily have reached out to Carson’s operation to verify the report. Instead, it seized the moment and ran with the report. And Cruz will ultimately answer for that to voters.

Ted Cruz, who generally bashes the media, is now justifying his own team's credulous interpretation of news reports about Ben Carson, as justification for spreading a rumor that Carson was on the verge of dropping out.

Ted Cruz apologizes to Carson. “Ben, I’m sorry,” he says, looking directly at the neurosurgeon.

Calling Cruz's trick "Washington ethics" is a pretty good line from Carson, given that Cruz has presented himself as the anti-Washington candidate.

Wow, Carson brings up his Iowa staffer who died in a car accident, saying Cruz should not have doubted his supporters' dedication. Carson also slams "Washington ethics."

Carson gets a question about the messages Cruz put out to Iowa caucus-goers saying Carson was dropping out. I've spoken to many New Hampshire voters in the past few days who viewed that as a dirty trick. Interestingly, Carson says he won't speak ill of Cruz, but says he's "disappointed" in Cruz's team.

In response to Ted Cruz’s actions in Iowa in suggesting that he was dropping out of the debate, Carson jokes about his awkward entrance, “When I wasn’t introduced number two as the plan, I thought maybe you thought I had already dropped out."

And when Carson finally takes the stage, after hovering in the wings, the moderators try to start the debate without calling Ohio Governor John Kasich to the stage. The debate is off to a decidedly rough start.

This debate is already bizarre: When his name was called for the intros, Ben Carson didn't come out, then feinted like he would come out, then stayed back. Ultimately he waited in the wings until the moderators specifically reminded him to come out.

Jeb Bush usually doesn't shine in these debate formats, but he'll be one to watch tonight. Bush was effectively reduced to the status of "also-ran" in the Iowa caucus. If Bush can't endear himself to New Hampshire voters, it'll be hard for him to convince donors not to flee.

I wonder if Donald Trump will be the center of attention again tonight. If the moderators don’t ask him many questions, that could really hurt him. He’d seem like yesterday’s news. And if he complained that could hurt him too.

Guess who’s back? Donald Trump skipped the last debate before the Iowa Caucus, and Ted Cruz came back to beat him. Did his absence from the stage matter? Probably not, but it was a narrow enough loss for even relatively small impacts to make a difference. Tonight, days before New Hampshire votes, he’s apparently not taking any chances, despite his commanding lead in the polls.

For much of the cycle, it was the Democrats scheduling their debates at inconvenient hours and odd times. Now the Republicans have scheduled a debate late on Saturday night, on Super Bowl weekend. (And, if you’re just tuning in, you’ve probably noticed that the advertised 8 p.m. start time is going to draw fire from Politifact.) That’s sure to depress the national audience. But these candidates, right now, are talking to persuadable voters in New Hampshire, who’re more likely to tune in. That’s not a large audience, but for several of the men on stage, it’s the only one that matters anymore.