Well, that was different.
Thursday night’s Fox News debate – the last before Iowans go to caucus on Monday – was perhaps the most policy oriented that we’ve seen thus far. This was due, in large part, to the missing elephant in the room: Donald Trump.
It follows that the evening was the chance for all the other candidates to make their voices heard without Trump dominating, as he has in the past six debates. And while I wouldn't argue that there was a runaway winner this evening, it’s clear that the group benefitted from a Trump free night as he chose to skip the debate in favor of hosting a Wounded Warrior Project fundraiser.
Indeed, Trump could go down a bit because of his absence, but it doesn’t seem that Cruz did enough to displace him as the frontrunner.
As Trump’s main rival and closest competitor, Cruz didn’t have the night that he could’ve – and should’ve – in Trump’s absence. He began with great lines like “Iowa will not by flyover country, it will be fly to country” and that there’s a “difference between personal attacks and focusing on issues and substance,” drawing a clear line in the sand with Trump’s style. But besides a great answer to his position on ethanol subsidies, Cruz didn’t dominate the way he needed to. He may go up in the polls a little bit, but not the knockout he was looking for.
This left room for the rest of the group. Thursday night we heard from the “establishment” and the libertarian without any serious interruption. And they did well for themselves.
Jeb Bush was more energized than we’ve seen him before. He made a compelling case for his foreign policy vision and gave the proper level of defense for his brother’s decisions. The point that Bush made that got the most applause, and deservedly so, was about his consistent support for policies that produce consensus. This is something that governors need to be able to do and also a point that Christie and Kasich emphasized. It may well sway voters to the “executives” on stage.
Rubio performed well, as he always does. I don’t think it was his strongest debate and neither he nor Cruz looked good in their fight over immigration. It’s clear that both have flip flopped on the issue and if voters care about that – which it’s not entirely clear that they do – then this could hurt him.
That said, he had great lines about Hillary Clinton’s unfitness to be president as well as Bernie Sanders’s.
Rubio’s vision is fresh and hopeful and he knows the importance of talking often and decisively about the need to fight terrorism on every front and protect American lives. This no doubt resonates. It follows that he remains, in my view, the most electable candidate on the GOP side – something I have been arguing for months.
And there were two other candidates who stand to benefit from Thursday night’s debate. Rand Paul and Chris Christie were both on point the entire evening.
Christie touted his executive experience and ability to get things done with Democrats – something a president has to do. And Paul, who had many supporters in the audience, was finally able to showcase what a libertarian means without Trump’s attacks: someone who doesn’t want to police the world, someone wants to make federal issues states rights issues and someone who cares deeply about protecting our privacy.
For his part, John Kasich did well and clearly geared his answers toward New Hampshire voters where he has been gaining in the polls. He also rightly touted his ability to work with Democrats and make sure that we take care of those that “live in the shadows” and the mentally ill and drug addicted. The audience liked his ideas in these areas and he’s looking more and more like a legitimate candidate and as the governor of a crucial state like Ohio, he could be a very good vice presidential choice.
Dr. Ben Carson was, once again, a non-factor. Even as the only “outsider” on the stage he fell completely flat. There’s not much more to say.
So we survived our first Trump free debate – and in style. It wasn’t as loud, but it’s a good thing that we could hear everybody.
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 12 books. His latest is "The Nixon Effect: How Richard Nixon’s Presidency Fundamentally Changed American Politics" (Encounter Books, February 2016). Follow Doug on Twitter @DouglasESchoen.