Bush finally seemed to find his voice Tuesday night. But was it too little, too late?
After struggling to assert himself in the first four debates, the former Florida governor came across as much more confident and polished in Las Vegas. Bush trained most of his fire on Trump, and even though he didn't take the poll-leader down, he certainly scored points by repeatedly asserting that Trump is not a serious candidate.
Bush delivered one of the most memorable lines of the night, when he told Trump: "You can’t insult your way to the presidency." The remark not only drew huge applause from the Las Vegas audience, but according to data provided by Facebook, it was the top social moment of the debate. How much, if at all, this performance helps Bush rise out of the single digits in polls remains to be seen, but in the short term it should help ease the minds of some nervous donors.
Just appearing in the prime-time debate alone was a victory for Rand Paul, whom CNN allowed on stage "in the spirit of being as inclusive as possible" despite his poor poll numbers. Paul kept up his attacks on Rubio, at one point calling him "the weakest of all the candidates on immigration." He also carved out his space as a libertarian on surveillance at a time when Cruz has already made inroads with voters receptive to this message.
This was the Paul that many of his supporters have been waiting to see on the national stage. The danger for Paul, when he sounds more and more like his father, Ron Paul, is that doing so limits his opportunities to expand his base. But at this stage, Paul needs to lock down his father's old backers to boost his struggling campaign, and he took another step toward accomplishing that Tuesday night.
While there wasn't one overwhelming winner, there was a clear loser: Ben Carson. The retired neurosurgeon had a rough night right from the get-go. The very first time moderator Wolf Blitzer came to him with a question, Carson complained about not being given enough time to talk. But from there, it only got worse. In a debate dominated by foreign policy, Carson's lack of bona fides on the topic was again painfully evident.
At one point, panelist Hugh Hewitt asked Carson if he was comfortable making decisions that put innocent children and civilians at risk. Carson gave a meandering response: “Well, interestingly enough, you should see the eyes of some of those children when I say to them, 'We’re going to have to open your head up and take out this tumor.' They’re not happy about it; they don’t like me very much at that point. But later on, they love me. ... Later on, you know, they really realize what’s going on. And by the same token, you have to be able to look at the big picture and understand that it’s actually merciful if you go ahead and finish the job rather than death by a thousand pricks.”