Commentary on final GOP debate before N.H. primary

Commentary on final GOP debate before N.H. primary

By Richard E. Vatz

The Republican debate in New Hampshire Saturday night, three days prior to the primary, promised drama, despite the plethora of debates.

There was the first hint of Donald Trump’s support diminishing, due to his missing the Iowa debate, and his charisma taking a hit due to his post-debate craziness exemplified by a short-lived demand of a do-over of the Iowa caucuses.

There was the hint of a major surge in popularity of Marco Rubio, perhaps due to what the Wall Street Journal’s Peggy Noonan claims is the perception that he is the only “normal” Republican among the front-runners.

The exclusion of the only woman in the running, Carly Fiorina, added to the tension.  And Chris Christie may have been feeling desperation, as he argued before the debate, unintelligibly, that there will be general desperation since “people are voting.”

Once again the candidates were placed on stage according to their polling numbers, despite the fact that the polls were off in Iowa, even more than the margins of error.

It was the best of debates; it was the worst of debates.  Marco Rubio must have had a brain freeze: in the first half of the debate, he strangely repeated 3 times with the same words irrelevant attacks on President Obama for not knowing what he’s doing.

In exchanges with Chris Christie, Rubio mostly ignored the New Jersey governor’s attacks on the senator’s lack of decision-making experience.  Ben Carson was relatively ignored for much of the debate.  John Kasich was not asked a question for the first half hour. Time distribution got just a little better as the debate proceeded.

David Muir used the first question to Donald Trump, Ted Cruz and Ben Carson to ask about Trump’s temperament.  Subsequent questions were less referential to Trump, who was a little less pompous in this debate.

Sen. Marco Rubio improved somewhat from his weakest start in any debate thus far.  He got his act together as the evening progressed:  Obama’s inability or unwillingness to confront North Korea; defense of his immigration position pursuant to the problematic Gang of Eight proposal; the lack of fairness of raising taxes on the wealth and the overtaxing of businesses; his sophistication on ISIS and the Sunni forces and the complexity of the Shiite-Sunni conflict; and his pointing out the passes that debate media have given to Hillary Clinton on abortion and questioning on her Benghazi irresponsible and contradictory claims.

Dr. Ben Carson: as always, a pleasant, intelligent responsible citizen who did not add much to policy issues and questions.  To be fair, he was not asked a lot.

Donald Trump was the least offensive he has been and the most collegial, save an attack on Jeb Bush on a discourse on the necessity of eminent domain.  Mostly strong on every foreign policy issue but with generalizations only.  He’d keep waterboarding “and a lot worse.”  We need to “win” more, he says.  He was more knowledgeable on domestic issues.

Sen. Ted Cruz had one of his best and least personally offensive nights. He wouldn’t take the bait from Muir to attack Trump.  He was not particularly articulate about North Korea, but in fairness it was the very day of their testing new ballistic missiles.  He was strong on foreign policy otherwise.   He gave a surprisingly moving, poignant story about his half-sister dying of a drug overdose,  and he thus showed vulnerability for the first time.

Gov. John Kasich, as noted, was not asked a question until thirty minutes or so had passed. When he became more involved, he was pretty articulate and presidential: on North Korea’s missile launch, for example, and how he would handle his first 100 days, he was quite impressive.

Former Gov. Jeb Bush had perhaps his best night: he was strong and forceful on Libya, Guantanamo, and the importance of the United States’ not signaling weakness.  Dogged by halting speech in former debates, he was far clearer, fluent and resolute tonight.  He stated simply and convincingly that closing Guantanamo was foolhardy and revelatory of the Obama foreign policy weakness and passivity.

Gov. Chris Christie may have been the most improved.  His attacks on Rubio and his executive inexperience were telling and ineffectively countered by the senator.  His point about hostage negotiation’s encouraging hostage-taking was strong and indisputable, as was his point about overtaxing the wealthy having paradoxical consequences of revenue loss.

Marred by booing 

One of the weaknesses of this debate was the consistent booing by the audience whenever they disagreed with certain candidates.  Trump complained that they were not a representative sampling of voters but lobbyists and donors in the tank for particular candidates.  No matter: it just makes no sense to allow a debate to be controlled by an audience,

Not a strong first half of the debate, but a much better second half.  It may have been a consequential night for the candidates.  Not a good night for Rubio, certainly not in the first half of the debate; a strong night for Christie; a good night for Bush; a pretty good night for Kasich, Cruz and Trump, who was a little less egocentric and baiting than usual — a little.  Carson was again the attractive, politically nondescript participant.

Professor Vatz teaches political rhetoric at Towson University

Too long, too vague, too unequal

By Len Lazarick

Enough already. Two and a half hours, seven candidates, lopsided questions all over the place. Thank goodness for the DVR so you can watch it in palatable segments.

If the candidates are supposed to be equal then they should be treated equally. And if they are asked a direct question, they should be forced to actually answer the question with a follow up, not thanked for a non-answer.

The chart from Graphiq shows the unequal time.

Data curated by InsideGov

For once, Donald Trump did not dominate on time, but he did not suffer, as most attacks landed on Marco Rubio, and Trump himself did not attack. He is forceful and utterly vague. What exactly is his plan to replace Obamacare?  Who knows? There is no mention of it on his website to explain his elusive answer.

Despite that, another graph shows he gained the most Twitter followers, almost as many as all the other candidates combined. And how did Rand Paul, who has abandoned his campaign, gain more Twitter followers than half the people on the stage?

The trends on Google searches show Marco Rubio had the most, but it’s not clear whether that was a positive or negative.

Marco Rubio had no good answer for his lack of executive experience, so he repeated a bad answer. You can see why Chris Christie was such a good prosecutor, and did anyone notice Gov. Larry Hogan come up after the debate and give him a hug?

There was some wasted time about Ted Cruz’s staff spreading the false report that Ben Carson was dropping out, but then again Carson outdoes even Trump on vagueness.

I think I’m going to give up these debates for Lent, which starts Wednesday.

About The Author

Len Lazarick

Len Lazarick was the founding editor and publisher of and is currently the president of its nonprofit corporation and chairman of its board He was formerly the State House bureau chief of the daily Baltimore Examiner from its start in April 2006 to its demise in February 2009. He was a copy editor on the national desk of the Washington Post for eight years before that, and has spent decades covering Maryland politics and government.

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