Donald Trump didn’t dominate the Milwaukee debate. In fact, he disappeared for long stretches.
Ben Carson didn’t loom large over the debate either, though he was more energetic than in his previous low-key outings.
Yet they were the night’s winners, and here’s why.
In pure debating terms, Marco Rubio and Ted Cruz were the best orators on the stage. Rubio in particular had his second strong performance in a row. The two Cuban-American senators seem to be emerging as the top contenders of the “establishment” wing—though both would hate the phrase—to square off against Trump and Carson or fill the vacuum if they eventually fade.
But with such a sizable lead in the Republican contest, The Donald and the doctor did nothing to damage themselves—or change the dynamics of the race.
And the policy-laden questions from the moderators—Neil Cavuto and Maria Bartiromo of Fox Business, plus Wall Street Journal editor Gerard Baker—kept the two-hour session from veering out of control or turning into a night of media-bashing.
Trump was restrained and didn’t hurl any of his patented insults. He behaved more like a conventional candidate, and didn’t try to elbow his way into the discussion, as some of his rivals did. This was by design, as he later admitted to Cavuto. When you’re leading the polls, you don’t need to pick fights. And he was comfortable holding forth on such issues as trade and immigration.
Carson did what he had to do with one answer to Cavuto’s question about the wave of media attacks on his biography. He didn’t show his anger at the press, as he did last week in a news conference and combative CNN interview. Carson said he had no problem being vetted but did have a problem being lied about—and then pivoted to his view that the press has given Hillary Clinton a soft ride on Benghazi.
With that surgical precision, the neurosurgeon may have closed the book on the credibility questions, unless there are damaging new revelations. After flawed or overhyped stories by Politico, CNN and the Wall Street Journal, he has emerged largely intact—and is raising money against the media
Carly Fiorina was solid, and yet seems to have dissipated the momentum she gained after her breakout performance in the CNN debate. Rand Paul had his strongest debate of the year, but he is far back in the pack. John Kasich repeatedly interrupted--challenging Trump on immigration, for instance—but seemed to scold his party in a way that sounded a discordant note. Kasich’s brand is to be a truth-teller, but such folks aren’t always popular.
And what about Jeb Bush? He was more focused and forceful, and looked more comfortable, than in any of the three earlier debates. He undoubtedly reassured some nervous donors. But Bush still has to climb out of the deep hole he has dug for himself.
As for the moderators, they did exactly what they had advertised: ask substantive questions and not make it about them. It was a huge stylistic contrast from CNBC’s train-wreck debate.
The debate got wonky at times as they drilled down into tax plans, the Fed and the IMF. Some critics say it was a bit dull; so be it. But the media critics who say the anchors were tossing softballs miss the point.
Prodding politicians to flesh out their plans is not as exciting as asking confrontational questions or comparing them to comic-book characters. Cavuto and Bartiromo followed up at times, pressing for specifics, but they were hemmed in to some degree by the decision to allow 90-second answers and 60-second rebuttals, which gave the debate a weightier feel.
The audience seemed interested, with 13.5 million tuning in for the prime-time debate, just under CNBC’s 14 million (the 8-year-old FBN reaches 11 million fewer homes than its rival). The figure is, of course, the highest in the channel's history.
No debate is perfect. But there’s got to be a sweet spot between haranguing the candidates and rolling over for them.
Howard Kurtz is a Fox News analyst and the host of "MediaBuzz" (Sundays 11 a.m. and 5 p.m. ET). He is the author of five books and is based in Washington. Follow him at @HowardKurtz. Click here for more information on Howard Kurtz.