If this campaign season has proved anything, it’s that Donald Trump always comes out on top even when he doesn’t.
The results of Tuesday night's GOP debate in Las Vegas will be no different.
Donald Trump surely didn’t win on Tuesday evening. He was often marginalized and it felt like he was on the sidelines for much of it.
His exchanges with Jeb Bush were lively – we saw a much more assertive Bush– and he made an excellent point in bringing focus back to the challenges we’re facing at home: creating jobs, crumbling infrastructure and border security.
We know that Trump supporters are not fair weather fans. They’re in it for the long haul and I expect him to remain on top after Tuesday night’s debate.
But we know that Trump supporters are not fair weather fans. They’re in it for the long haul and I expect him to remain on top after the Las Vegas debate. He’s plain talking and we’ve seen that his proposals garner tremendous support.
Nothing is going to shake that. And Trump ended on a unifying note – a great way to close.
As with the last debate, Senators Ted Cruz and Marco Rubio gave incredibly strong performances. They’re well prepared, very quick off the mark and focused. And they clearly know that they’re each other’s greatest threat.
Cruz and Rubio most notable tussles were on the issue of government surveillance and immigration.
We knew that these would be big issues coming into this evening, especially with news that we missed crucial – and available – information about the San Bernadino terrorists on social media, and both senators fiercely defended their positions.
In my opinion, and it seemed to be the opinion of the audience, Rubio is on the right side of the issue: we should have as much information as possible to keep us safe.
That said, Rubio was certainly hurt on the immigration issue wherein Cruz was able to argue that he has more allegiance to New York Democratic Senator Chuck Schumer and liberals for supporting a pathway to citizenship in his Gang of Eight bill.
Chris Christie needed to do well Tuesday night and he didn’t disappoint. The New Jersey governor touted his executive experience and made clear that he understands that the president’s first priority should be to protect the safety of Americans.
His anti-Washington rhetoric was hugely impactful and will resonate with voters who are yearning for an outsider to win the presidency.
Furthermore, he offers Republican voters a candidate who is an elected official, but also plain talking and focused on national security. I believe his message tonight will resonate.
The other candidates were more background music than anything else.
As usual, Carly Fiorina had a few bright moments especially when she highlighted how far ahead of bureaucracy the government is and how important the private sector will be in helping combat the terror threat. But she often came off as shrill. Indeed, she began by saying how angry she is about the state of the country and she never really lost that angry demeanor.
Rand Paul had a contingent of supporters in the audience who stuck by him as he articulated his isolationist position.
To no one’s surprise, he went after everyone on the stage who supports government collection of metadata and took particular aim at Trump early on. Paul is steadfast in his views – they’re just not getting him anywhere. And that won’t change after Tuesday night.
As I mentioned above, Bush was more assertive at this debate. He went toe-to-toe with Trump and even won a confrontation or two.
He has a clear strategy for tackling ISIS in the Middle East and was the first to call Trump out on the dangers of his proposed Muslim ban. Polling shows that GOP primary voters are in favor of it, but the audience certainly wasn’t, which is indicative of the broader Republican party’s opinion on it.
Ben Carson got less time than in previous debates and was often marginalized. He was actually better than in previous debates, but I doubt anyone will remember what he said. That will keep him in the running, but if Cruz and Rubio keep advancing he could be pushed into Jeb Bush territory.
As for Ohio Governor John Kasich, he didn’t have any memorable moments or lines beyond his vow to punch Putin in the nose.
For a very competent, strong governor he has yet to make his case and Tuesday night did nothing to help him.
While there was a lot of infighting on Tuesday evening, there was also a lot of focus on Hillary Clinton underscoring her vulnerability.
Christie was her foremost critic and this strategy is a smart one to employ by all the candidates. They will almost certainly be facing her come next fall and her foreign policy record is certainly one that can be attacked.
It follows that we saw Cruz and Rubio maintain their position as the GOP’s best debaters and Trump retain his position as the leader of the pack even if you couldn’t feel it during the debate.
It is becoming less and less likely that we will see dropouts before the Iowa caucuses.
But don’t worry, they all won’t be there for long.
Douglas E. Schoen has served as a pollster for President Bill Clinton. He has more than 30 years experience as a pollster and political consultant. He is also a Fox News contributor and co-host of "Fox News Insiders" Sundays on Fox News Channel at 7 pm ET. He is the author of 13 books. His latest is "Putin's Master Plan" (Encounter Books, September 27, 2016). Follow Doug on Twitter @DouglasESchoen.