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Debate Rolls On Without Trump

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Friday, 29 Jan 2016 07:46 AM Current | Bio | Archive

The last Republican debate before the Iowa caucuses was most notable for who was absent: Donald Trump, who kept his vow not to appear in the Fox News debate that included anchor Megyn Kelly.

Even as he was absent from the stage in Des Moines and holding a rally of his own Thursday night, Trump had an impact. That was the consensus among a group of neutral observers I spoke to shortly after the debate concluded.

“Donald Trump’s absence at this debate was a winning strategy because it left his closest Iowa competitor as the juiciest target for the other candidates,” Kathie Obradovich, political writer for the Des Moines Register, told me. “Ted Cruz is a strong debater but he had trouble reconciling his 2013 immigration position with his no-amnesty stance of today.”

She noted that the Texan’s joke that he might have to leave the stage if he got meaner questions “fell flat.”

“And the audience was clearly behind debate spectator Iowa Gov. Terry Branstad and not Cruz on ethanol policy,” said Obradovich. “Several other candidates had good nights, including Marco Rubio and Chris Christie. Rubio’s performance could help him lock up third place in Iowa, ahead of a barely-there Ben Carson.”

But, she emphasized, “Trump was able to expose Cruz to tough attacks without lifting a finger himself. That makes him a debate winner without even showing up.”

Going even further than Obradovich was veteran North Carolina GOP consultant Marc Rotterman, who has no horse in the presidential race.

“The winner of the debate was Donald Trump and the loser was Fox News,” Rotterman told me without hesitation, “Trump's presence was missed. The debate, in fact, was anti-climactic without Mr. Trump. Quite frankly, I struggled to stay awake.”

Like Obradovich, Rotterman felt that Christie gained from the forum (“his best night of the season — especially his ‘stop the Washington bull’ line"), but concluded, “The lead in all the stories tomorrow will be ‘Trump rewriting all the rules. Team Trump proving Washington gurus overrated.’”

Another GOP consultant with no candidate in the race, Ford O’Connell, agreed.

“Trump was the debate winner precisely because Cruz was in the hot seat and Trump didn't have much to gain but potentially had much to lose by participating,” O’Connell told me. “Of those who appeared on the debate stage and who are currently in contention for the nomination, Rubio came out ahead. It's so much that Rubio won as no one else within striking distance of the nomination turned in such a standout performance that it matters at this juncture.”

O’Connell added that “without Trump on the stage, this debate was an opportunity for Cruz and Rubio to take control. Neither brought their A game and both got tripped up in the immigration quagmire.

“Jeb Bush and Rand Paul definitely turned in their best debate performances, but I'm not sure it will have a meaning long-term impact, given their meager standings in the polls. For Cruz, it was simply a missed opportunity that could cost him in Iowa.”

“Trump lost nothing by not showing up,” said Franklin and Marshall College professor G. Terry Madonna, a pollster in Pennsylvania. “And it was strange to see the competing events [the debate and the simultaneous Trump rally]. The sight of Mike Huckabee and Rick Santorum — two other candidates left out of the debate by Fox — on the stage at the Trump event was surreal. There’s no precedent for this.”

As for those Republicans who did debate, Madonna felt “Jeb Bush, Rand Paul, and John Kasich turned in much better performances than in past debates. Marco Rubio was strong as usual, especially on foreign policy, but did show a contradiction on immigration. The others were just fair. Carson was a complete nonfactor.”

But, Madonna emphasized, “Some did better than others, but not much ground will be made up or lost. There were no clear winners.”

As is almost always the case with neutral observers, there were differing opinions. Donald Critchlow, director of the Arizona State University Center for Political Thought, felt “the simple lesson from the debate is that all the candidates were better off without Trump. There was a substantive debate and sharp exchanges over serious issues with candidates focusing much more on Hillary Clinton than Trump.”

Critchlow, who has a just-published book based on the modern Republican Party, felt “Cruz was center stage. He came across well as the candidate warning that America is in crisis. He was hurt by attacks that he will say anything to get elected. The videos of him on his immigration amendment made him look smarmy, but it came in the middle of the debate.

“Rubio had a good night. He looked like a unifier. Bush was lost in the debate, although he had good moments. That immigration was seriously debated helped him, but his PAC attacks on Rubio on immigration made him look like a hypocrite.”

He added that Kasich “had more time than in any other debate” and “looks like the ideal vice presidential candidate,” and Carson continued to look “inarticulate and out of his depth.”

“The big walk away is that the GOP is better off without Trump. Whether voters and his supporters see this will be seen.”

John Gizzi is chief political columnist and White House correspondent for Newsmax.
 

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The last Republican debate before the Iowa caucuses was most notable for who was absent: Donald Trump, who kept his vow not to appear in the Fox News debate that included anchor Megyn Kelly.
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2016-46-29
Friday, 29 Jan 2016 07:46 AM
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