Making Sense of the Last NH Debate

AP

This was a debate in primary colors. There’s little doubt who did well or who didn’t. The real question is what effect if any it will have on Tuesday’s vote.

In terms of the debate, there’s little question Marco Rubio had the worst of it. I don’t know if it will do him any good. But Chris Christie simply eviscerated Rubio. He came after him on each of the signature issues – scripted, accountability, immigration. If we judge him on his ability to achieve a specific aim, this was unquestionably Christie’s best debate. The most memorable moment, of course, was Christie coming at Rubio about being scripted and having Rubio go off balance and keep returning to the same verbatim scripted answer. As they always say in writing classes, don’t say, show. Christie showed. That’s what made it devastating. Christie demonstrated his point better than saying it a thousand times.

As I mentioned in my debate preview, every candidate came in ready to hit Marco Rubio because everyone needed him to lose for them to gain. The notable thing about the progress of the debate was that after Christie’s thrashing, the other candidates largely ignored Rubio. The damage had been done.

Just because pundits say something doesn’t mean it’s true. The opposite is a more reliable bet. But immediately after the debate, ABC went around their pundit roundtable and all agreed that Rubio had done terribly. The online chatter was even more brutal. I think that matters because his flailing will be a key subject of discussion for the next two days. And that’s a terrible way to close. It’s hard to overcome an echo chamber effect in a febrile news environment over 48 hours.

I heard one person ask how it could be that Rubio did so well in all the other debates and managed to stumble in this, the most critical one. I don’t think that’s a mystery at all. He’s very good delivering polished stump speech lines. He can’t take a punch. Christie turned his preparation against him.

On Twitter, Rubio’s top aides were pushing all sorts of reasons why Rubio was having an amazing night. They doth tweet too much.

Aside from Rubio, Trump was back on his game. He wasn’t bullying – at least not that much for Trump. But he hit his key campaign lines. He didn’t bobble any questions. It was probably his best debate performance and he needed it. I do not think I’ve ever seen a candidate repeatedly insult the audience. But it didn’t seem to hurt him over the remainder of the debate. And I doubt many will remember it.

Carson was simply bizarre. Christie was strong, but probably better at damaging Rubio than helping himself. Tonight he may have cinched the nomination for Rubio-Slayer. Bush and Kasich both did well relative to other debates. Whether it will help them I’m much less clear on. But the three governors doing well does create a very unpredictable final two days before the primary. As I noted earlier this evening, three of the candidates are bunched up around 10%. Any of them could come in third or even second.

Finally, Cruz started the debate taking a lot of hits, damaging hits, over whatever happened with him and Carson at the beginning of the Iowa Caucus. But over time, he seemed to fade into the background. For Ted Cruz, it was a very low key performance. I get the sense that his campaign saw that he did not come off well in the final Iowa debate and worked with him to tone down his demeanor. They may also have calculated that he doesn’t have to go for a win or even a terribly strong showing in New Hampshire. He just needs to do passably and get on to South Carolina. He had a rare humanizing moment describing his half-sister’s life of addiction. Perhaps his first humanizing moment.

Ever.

As I said, in the debate preview, Democrats had to hope tonight that Trump and Cruz did well and Rubio did badly. Cruz was a wash. Butt on Trump and Rubio they could not have asked for much better. I think Trump did what he needed to do for himself in New Hampshire. (It’s important to remember that he was never as clearly ahead in Iowa as he has been and continues to be in New Hampshire.) The big question is whether this Rubio stumble will kill his momentum or just be a running gag for political obsessives that doesn’t blunt all the strong pressures to coalesce behind a plausible general election candidate.

I’m really not sure about the answer to that last question, though honestly, I’m starting to wonder about my assumption that Rubio is a really the strongest general election candidate.

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