Fox News Republican Debate: Trump's absence leaves three winners and two losers

The intentional winner of the Fox News Republican debate Thursday night was Marco Rubio. He had a really good debate.  He was substantive and sharp, clear and polished.  He came across as likable.  He came across as someone who knows foreign policy.

The accidental winner, though, was Ted Cruz.  The debate got off to a rough start with Cruz. The other candidates were piling on the man in the center seat.  His campaign had expected it. His engagement with the moderators made him seem less likable. But the moderators, unintentionally and accidentally, solidified Cruz’s support for him and got fence sitters between Trump and Cruz off the fence.

“What about ObamaCare?” the moderators asked Cruz.  He wanted it repealed and replaced.

“Why does Washington hate you?” they asked Cruz.  That question let Cruz give a dissertation on his efforts to clean up and shrink Washington.

Then there was the issue of the ethanol lobby that gave Cruz a minute of clear answers on level playing fields and ending government subsidies.

Cruz could not have asked for a better set up of questions at a time when his favorables are vastly higher than other Republicans in Washington.

Without Donald Trump, the tone of the debate was lower energy, but filled with much more optimism.

The “Megyn Kelly Accountability Project” was a welcome addition to the debate and forced the candidates to own their records or flip-flops.

Jeb Bush had a far better night without Trump there. I was surprised there was not a clash with Kasich, given his rise in Iowa.  But Bush held his own and Kasich annoyed as always.

The ultimate winner, however, was Megyn Kelly.  After days of being beaten up by the Trump forces, she showed she is a sharp, credible journalist who is willing to ask tough questions and hold the candidates accountable for their prior statements.

The video montages and prior records of the candidates were fair game and she forced them to answer.

Overall, though the debate had lower energy than prior ones, it was wonderful to have the candidates have to own their records.

As for losers, that had to be Mike Huckabee and Rick Santorum, who had their “kneel before Zod” moment showing up at a Donald Trump rally where everyone treated Donald Trump as the conquering hero.

It was like conquered kings being traipsed before Rome. Their campaigns are over.