Most of Saturday night’s GOP debate in New Hampshire was a cracking good show, with moments of substance.
Marco Rubio, still riding momentum after almost beating Donald Trump in Iowa, was the main target of attack by the governors on the stage Saturday. He took on real water when Chris Christie effectively characterized him as an Obama-like orator who rarely strayed from a script, and Rubio fed that impression by repeating his talking points four times in response.
But Rubio stabilized and had a great answer on abortion “extremism” in the Democratic Party. He finished the debate in good form, but he sure gave reasons for Jeb Bush, Chris Christie and John Kasich to hang around to see if he stumbles again. If Marco’s momentum stalls in New Hampshire, his performance Saturday evening will be blamed for it.
Donald Trump was his swaggering self tonight, and helped himself except on the eminent domain issue.
“What Donald Trump did was use eminent domain to try to take the property of an elderly woman on the strip in Atlantic City,” Jeb Bush said, accusing Trump of trying to turn it into “a limousine parking lot for his casinos.”
“Let me talk, quiet," Trump interrupted, holding his finger to his lips to shush Bush. The crowd booed, and Trump then attacked the audience as a bunch of “donors.” But in the process he showed himself as a bully boy, especially in his cheap shot attack on Cruz in his closing statement that Cruz only won Iowa by stealing Ben Carson’s votes.
Ted Cruz had some rough moments explaining how some of his allies in Iowa spread a false rumor that Ben Carson would be dropping out of the race just as the caucuses open. But he quickly recovered from what is likely an inside baseball issue to most viewers and gave effective, well briefed answers to questions. He avoided a confrontation with Donald Trump. But by keeping his head down he insured that despite a likely loss in New Hampshire he can strive for first place in South Carolina on Feb. 20. Cruz scored points by pointing out he survived attacks from “cronyism” of ethanol lobby in Iowa.
John Kasich had a pretty good night and seemed to be appealing directly to moderates and independents in New Hampshire, even citing his endorsement by the New York Times -- not a vote winner with a GOP primary audience.
The debate had no truly game-changing moments, but it had caution flags for some candidates. Marco Rubio needs to realize that the level of scrutiny on him is increasing geometrically. Donald Trump has to worry that he is being seen by many people as a bully and not just an effective deal maker. Ted Cruz moderated his social conservative message tonight, but he will have to decide just how much he chooses to emphasize it as the next major primaries move to Southern states.
All in all, the debate went well. But it’s clear the questions asked in Democratic debates differ greatly from those in Republican debates. In five Democratic debates so far, abortion has never been mentioned in a question -- but as with Saturday night-- it is a staple of journalists when they pose questions at GOP debates.
John Fund is a columnist for National Review. Follow him on Twitter @JohnFund.