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.
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.
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:
This notion that Barack Obama doesn't know what he's doing?? He knows exactly what he's doing.— Marco Rubio Glitch (@RubioGlitch) February 7, 2016
Here's the bottom line, this notion that Barack Obama doesn't know what he's doing is just not true. He knows exactly what he's doing.— Marco Rubio Glitch (@RubioGlitch) February 7, 2016
Let's dispel with this fiction that Barack Obama doesn't know what he's doing. He knows exactly what he's doing— Marco Rubio Glitch (@RubioGlitch) February 7, 2016
Let's dispel with this fiction that Barack Obama doesn't know what he's doing. He knows exactly what he's doing.— Marco Rubio Glitch (@RubioGlitch) February 7, 2016
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.
Just how much did the results of the Iowa caucuses shake up the Republican race for president? The answer should become clear fairly quickly on Saturday night, when the contenders debate in New Hampshire three days before the Granite State’s primary.
The debate, televised at 8 p.m. by ABC, will mark the return of Donald Trump after he skipped the final match-up before Iowa because of a dispute with Fox News—a decision he has acknowledged might have contributed to his defeat. But which Trump will show up? The shockingly-contrite runner-up who congratulated Ted Cruz on his caucus victory in his brief appearance Monday night in Iowa? Or the more familiar Trump persona that raged against Cruz the next day on Twitter, accusing him of stealing the win and demanding a re-vote?
Public polls have had a rough year, but if you still trust them, then Trump remains the front-runner in New Hampshire. While Marco Rubio has gotten a bounce from his strong third-place finish in Iowa, Trump retains a double-digit lead, and the polling average on RealClearPolitics has him with twice the percentage of any other Republican. Yet he’ll have to share the spotlight Saturday night with Rubio, who has been the target of aggressive attacks from Chris Christie and Jeb Bush in the days since Iowa. Christie has been particularly withering, describing the first-term Florida senator as the “boy in the bubble” and afraid to deviate from canned stump speeches. For the trio of establishment-friendly governors—Christie, Bush, and John Kasich—New Hampshire has the same make-or-break status that Iowa had for social conservatives Mike Huckabee and Rick Santorum, who dropped out this week. A poor performance is likely to push at least one and possibly more of the governors out of the race. “If I get snuffed out, I go home—end of story,” Kasich told voters last week. Bush has the most money of the three, but Lindsey Graham, the longshot-hopeful-turned-Bush-surrogate, told The New York Times that if Rubio beats him badly in New Hampshire, “Jeb is toast.”
And then there’s the actual Iowa winner, Ted Cruz, who is trying to avoid becoming the third consecutive Republican caucus victor to have a mediocre showing in New Hampshire. The polls there haven’t moved much for him this week, and like Huckabee and Santorum before him, Cruz is better positioned for a strong finish in South Carolina and the Southern states that make up to so-called SEC Primary on March 1, including his home state of Texas. Cruz’s goal on Saturday is to blunt the momentum Rubio picked up in Iowa.
The sixth Republican candidate on the stage Saturday is Ben Carson, who seems to have entered the “Is he still running?” phase of his campaign. The neurosurgeon finished fourth in Iowa and then immediately had to fight rumors that he was dropping out of the race. (A brief detour to Florida, his spokesman famously said, was merely so he could pick up “a fresh set of clothes.”) Carson has never fared well in New Hampshire polling, and amid reports that he is laying off staff, it’s hard to see him as a big factor going forward.
The other drama heading into the debate is whether ABC would include Carly Fiorina, who was excluded despite finishing narrowly ahead of Kasich and Christie in Iowa. With Huckabee, Santorum, and Rand Paul having dropped out after Iowa, the network is not holding an undercard debate. (Sorry, Jim Gilmore.) Fiorina has been on the bubble for weeks, and she waged a fierce campaign for ABC and the Republican National Committee to include her, even securing support from the likes of Mitt Romney and Newt Gingrich for her participation. The pressure campaign worked against CNN in an earlier forum, but ABC has held firm this time.
Entry into the debate might have helped keep Fiorina’s fading hopes alive a little longer, but like Carson, her moment has likely passed. That is not the case for Cruz and Rubio, nor is it for Trump just yet, despite his disappointing finish in Iowa. Of the top-tier candidates, he now has the most to lose in New Hampshire, and the most on the line Saturday night.
You can follow every twist and turn of the race with our 2016 Distilled election dashboard, find out more about the candidates by using our Cheat Sheet, and see how viewers are responding to the candidates with our real-time emoji tracker. And follow along with us, as we live-blog all the action in Manchester.