Marco Rubio Won the Debate, Donald Trump Lost It, and Nobody Got Saved by the Bell

The moderators took a lighter touch than the last round, but not all of the candidates took advantage.

Ted Cruz speaks during the Republican presidential debate at the Milwaukee Theatre on Tuesday. (AP Photo/Morry Gash)

Tuesday night’s issue-heavy debate reinforced—rather than changed—the trajectory of the GOP primary. Unlike the previous three Republican debates, there was no memorable moment, and what arguments broke out were less personal than ideological.

But some of the candidates did more to help themselves than others—while a few had a night they’d like to soon forget.


Marco Rubio

It’s becoming rote to list the senator from Florida as a winner of these Republican gatherings. But the media-declared GOP front-runner submitted another shining performance, showing a deft grasp of potentially tricky issues like raising the minimum wage and breaking apart the Dodd-Frank financial reform.

His best moment, however, came when the talk shifted to foreign policy. Rubio articulated an aggressive view of America’s place in the world—sure to please the party’s many foreign policy hawks—while repeating his charge that Russian President Vladimir Putin is a “gangster.”

Rubio is sucking up establishment support as he slowly creeps up the polls. Expect both to continue after Tuesday.

Ted Cruz

The conservative senator from Texas was surprisingly underwhelming during the first pair of Republican debates. But his stellar performance last month in Colorado carried over to Milwaukee, where he once again looked like the accomplished debater he was in college.

Nobody in the Republican field is better at finding ways to serve red meat to the conservative base than Cruz. On a question about immigration, Cruz reiterated his hard-line opposition to President Obama’s reform plan while simultaneously bashing the media.

The consequences of illegal immigration, he said, would be viewed much differently “if a bunch of lawyers or bankers were crossing the Rio Grande. Or if a bunch of people with journalism degrees were coming over and driving down the wages in the press. Then, we would see stories about the economic calamity that is befalling our nation.”

Cruz's path to the nomination runs directly through the party’s most conservative voters. In Milwaukee, he yet again made inroads with them.

Ben Carson

Carson nabs the final spot in the winners' column as much because of what didn’t happen—renewed questions about the veracity of his personal story—as what did. The retired neurosurgeon gave a more polished performance than his previous sedate showings, at times pivoting effectively to topics he wanted to talk about.

When moderator Neil Cavuto asked Carson about stories alleging inconsistencies in his biography, for instance, he changed the subject to a favorite of conservatives: Benghazi.

“When I look at somebody like Hillary Clinton," he said, "who sits there and tells her daughter and a government official that no, this was a terrorist attack, and then tells everybody else that it was a video—where I came from, they call that a lie.”

To be fair, Carson faded as the debate went on. But few things have slowed his ascent to the top of the polls this year; if anything, Tuesday strengthened his hold over his sizable group of supporters.


Donald Trump

The media’s predictions of the billionaire’s political future have proven wrong time and time again. But even with that in mind, it’s hard to think the man who still tops some national polls did much to help himself. If nothing else, Trump increasingly feels more like a sideshow than a main attraction during these debates, with Rubio, Carson, and Cruz sucking up more and more airtime.

Even Rand Paul, a frequent subject of Trump’s tirades in the past, scored on Trump after he finished a long rant about China and the recently signed Trans-Pacific Partnership trade agreement. China, the senator from Kentucky pointed out, wasn’t part of the deal.

Trump hasn’t faded much in the polls so far, and he’s unlikely to suffer a swift descent anytime soon. But as the debate proved, increasingly, the Republican race isn’t about him anymore.

John Kasich

Like Scott Walker and Jeb Bush before him, it’s not a good sign when a candidate complains about a lack of questions and airtime. And Ohio Gov. John Kasich did just that, according to a report from Politico, complaining to debate moderators during a commercial break that they weren’t giving him enough of a chance.

Perhaps it would have been better if they hadn’t. When Kasich spoke, he rambled as if was worried he wouldn’t get another chance to talk. Some of the policy points he did make seemed to compliment the Obama administration, like his praise for the White House’s deployment of a Navy vessel in the South China Sea.

Worst of all, during a pointed exchange with Cruz, he seemed to support a partial bailout of big banks poised to fail. Few issues will provoke as much ire within the Republican base. With Chris Christie’s success during the undercard debate, Kasich might soon find he has competition for the moderate Republican vote in his must-win state of New Hampshire.

Time Limits

Perhaps chastened by CNBC’s experience, the moderators from Fox Business Channel rarely pushed the candidates to cut short their monologues or answer specific questions (we lost track of how many times the candidates spoke over the bell that was supposed to be a signal to stop). Their passivity might explain why most of the candidates on stage actually performed pretty well.

Jeb Bush was far from perfect, but he still delivered his best performance yet and might have stopped the bleeding among his donors and supporters. Even Paul, usually a fringe participant in these affairs, showed more vigor than usual as he reasserted his libertarian bona fides on issues like defense spending and the Federal Reserve. All the other candidates on stage had their share of strong moments.