We’ll get to the GOP debate momentarily. But first, a word about the Republicans’ odyssey and oddity this past year.
Per this Fox News Poll released on Dec. 16, 2014:
Christie/Huckabee/Paul 8% each
Carson/Ryan 6% each
The most recent Fox News Poll:
Cruz/Rubio 14% each
Christie/Fiorina/Huckabee 3% each
Kasich Paul 2% each
Welcome to the most volatile Republican presidential race in modern times. The upper 66 percent of last year’s field is either out of the running or running on fumes. The top 74 percent in the current field is five times larger than its 15 percednt share of a year ago.
And 2016? It may only add to the confusion.
On to the main event and what transpired Tuesday night at The Venetian Las Vegas.
The good news: It was smaller grouping than the last time CNN/Salem Radio ran the show (nine candidates, down two from September’s gathering at the Reagan Presidential Library). And it was truncated – 40 minutes less than September’s three-hour debate from hell).
Still, CNN was plagued by the same problems as before: a candidates’ forum that was too long, too lumbering, and too laxly herded.
Here are seven observations from this, the final Republican debate of 2015:
1. No One Trumped Trump. It wasn’t for a lack of effort. Kentucky Sen. Rand Paul ripped into Donald Trump less than 30 seconds into the debate’s start over Internet policy. Former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush tut-tutted: “You’re not going to insult your way to the presidency.”
What they don’t get: Trump didn’t earn the center spot on the stage courtesy of profound thinking or refined elegance. Better to construct one’s own case, rather than try to deconstruct The Donald.
Blame it on the candidates’ approach and Wolf Blitzer’s herky-jerky style of questioning (like watching a 16-year-old drive a stick-shift for the first time): how many of Trump’s rivals made a lasting impression as to how they’d defeat ISIS and protect the homeland?
2. The Cage Match. At various points, Paul took swings at Trump, Florida Sen. Marco Rubio and New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie. The libertarians in the crowd loved it, but the candidate came across as desperate – for attention and a lifeline for a campaign struggling to stay afloat.
The dust-up that the media wanted but didn’t get: Trump and Texas Sen. Ted Cruz. Both were too smart to take the bait.
Cruz didn’t expound on his differences with Trump over the Muslim immigration ban or a previous comment suggesting he thought Trump lacked a presidential temperament. Trump expressed “great respect” for the other candidates on the stage and ruled out an independent run (the night’s biggest news).
Time will tell whether what Trump said in Vegas stayed in Vegas.
Cruz did have some momentary tussles – with Rubio over Senate votes (always a good way to put an audience to sleep). And Trump: his testiest moments came in a personal back-and-forth with Bush over demeanor and poll numbers.
3. Executive Order. It was a national security debate long on tough talk about leadership skills, which would seem an opening for the two sitting governors looking for a leg-up in this race: Christie and Ohio Gov. John Kasich.
Did either succeed? Not quite.
For Christie, the problem was numbers. Yes, he had some good moments connecting national security to his New Jersey heritage. However, nine candidates and a round-robin style of Q&A too often reduced Christie to interjecting himself into the debate to remind viewers of just how vapid senators can be (Carly Fiorina also went down this path, at several points jumping into the cross-talk to bemoan the awfulness of the political class).
As for Kasich, it’s a matter of rhetorical substance abuse. Three governors past and present have departed the race. A fourth, Bush, is struggling to stay relevant. It’s a political climate in which the Republican base isn’t impressed by resumes, yet Kasich continues to recite a long Washington biography. Oh(io) the humanity.
4. Auld Lang Syne. And so ends the GOP’s debate circuit for 2015. Next up: a Jan. 14 debate in North Charleston, S.C., hosted by the Fox Business Network.
5. At a time when many a college student is taking semester finals, this debate had the vibe of that last exam of the week before an extended break. Tempers were short; the candidates seemed tired of sharing the same oxygen.
6. Debate winners, if we must: Trump and Cruz, for playing mostly error-free ball.
7. Debate losers: anyone who lost their place in line for the “Star Wars” premiere by staying home to watch a mostly uneventful debate.
Bill Whalen is a research fellow at Stanford University's Hoover Institution, where he analyzes California and national politics. He also blogs daily on the 2016 election at www.adayattheracesblog.com. Follow him on Twitter @hooverwhalen.