Will GOP debate sway Iowa voters? Six takeaways from Des Moines

Howard Kurtz and Chris Stirewalt weigh in on 'The Kelly File'


After seven Republican presidential debates over the past five months, including Thursday night’s turn in Des Moines, here’s what we can say with certainty about Monday’s vote in Iowa.

It’s anyone guess.

We won’t know, until then, whether Donald Trump’s debate truancy was a stroke of anti-establishment genius or a self-inflicted wound.

Will the traditional model of preaching to the Hawkeye evangelical base (roughly three-fifths of 2012’s GOP caucus-voters) change water to wine for Texas Sen. Cruz? Or, will Trump rewrite the rules with a historic turnout of first-time voters?

Most bothersome to the frontrunners (and the polling profession): is someone in the back of the pack going to spring a surprise and finish in Iowa’s top three?

One thing we do know: a relatively small number of supporters in Iowa – more people will attend Super Bowl L than vote for the Republican winner – can propel a candidate a long way.

Back in 1976, Jimmy Carter received only 10,764 votes, but ended up in the Oval Office. More Democrats actually voted “uncommitted” that year (they knew something it took the rest of the nation four years to figure out).

Here are six observations about this final pre-kickoff debate:

1.   Life Without The Donald. Like relocating a mountain-climbing expedition to a lower base camp, the seven Republicans on the stage had more oxygen, more room to roam – and fewer bruising avalanches unleashed upon them. But let’s be honest: it also wasn’t as entertaining.

And that’s a good thing.

The debate was arguably more dignified than the six gatherings and refreshingly devoid of condescending put-downs and juvenile mugging at the cameras – the hallmarks of Triumph the Insult Candidate.

2.   Cruz, In Control – Maybe Too Controlled. One wonders if, at some point, he missed his frenemy, Trump.

Absent The Donald, Cruz had two challenges – a debate that was more a referendum on him (his consistencies, his electability); and no natural foil with whom to joust. Cruz didn’t make any gaffes that would send his campaign into damage-control mode. That’s the good news for his supporters.

Still, without that antagonist, Cruz didn’t seem quite the tactically clever, turn-on-a-dime debater he’s been in past gatherings. At least he had the good sense to end the whining about too many attack questions with a joke about leaving the stage.

Overall, for Cruz, a break-even night.

3.   The Rubio Razzing Fizzled. Florida Sen. Marco Rubio didn’t shine, nor did he sour. Overall, he had a good night in this respect: he didn’t receive any flak from Dr. Ben Carson, his rival for third place in Iowa; Jeb Bush took one run at his fellow Floridian on immigration consistencies.

Even there, Rubio caught a break as the issue got hacky-sacked between him, Cruz, Kentucky Sen. Rand Paul and finally New Jersey Chris Christie who called on the quarreling senators to “stop the Washington bull.”

In all, the most telling five minutes of the night as it underscored the GOP candidates’ troubles in navigating the shoals of conservative primaries and a more centrist national electorate.

Like Cruz, Rubio broke even. Bush had a better night – not coincidentally, free from Trump’s scorn and ridicule. Ben Carson? His low-wattage demeanor wasn’t much of a factor.

4.   Rand’s Last Stand? As predicted here, Rand Paul was indeed a Trump Mini-Me in attacking Cruz time and again  – Paul going after his Senate colleague his record on NSA privacy, immigration, and for not showing up for an audit-the-Federal Reserve.

Fox News’ Bret Baier asked about the latter in the context of why the younger Paul hasn’t embraced his famously libertarian father (“liberty voters”), the third-place finisher in Iowa in 2012. It’s one of many what-if’s to ponder once the primaries are over.

Paul had a good night – unfortunately, the sort of evening he needed five months ago

5.   Was Kasich Facing East? There’s limber and then there’s Ohio’s governor – one foot in Iowa, the other 1,300 miles to the east, in New Hampshire.

Kasich preached reform, balancing budgets, an optimistic attitude and the need “to come together as a country” – good-government, Kumbaya rhetoric tailored for the less conservative, voters-can-crossover electorate back east. By the way, it’s working… just not in Iowa (Kasich has racked up seven New Hampshire newspaper endorsements).

On balance, a good night for Kasich as Iowa is largely irrelevant to his fortunes. The same for Christie, who’s also all-in in New Hampshire.

6.   Grimace-And-Bear-It Moments. Asked where he’d cut federal spending, the entitlement-reforming Christie opted for defunding Planned Parenthood (he and Rubio have tussled over this topic, so this smacked of reassuring pro-life voters). Bush said he had no control over how his super PAC spends its money (“no controlling legal authority” wasn’t Al Gore’s shining moment).

Surprisingly, the three moderators passed on the biggest gotcha question of ‘em all for any Iowa Republican audience – why the GOP caucus winner rarely makes it to the White House (George W. Bush pulled it off in 2000, otherwise it’s a rather jarring record of futility these past four decades).

Hard to believe: all the speculation is about to give way to actual voting results.

Harder to believe: these same Republicans (maybe Trump too) will be debating a week from Saturday in New Hampshire.

For debate-viewers Thursday night, it was a respite from Trump but no respite from these debates.

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 Follow him on Twitter @hooverwhalen.