The final GOP presidential debate before Monday's Iowa caucuses seemed to be highly touted for which candidate was not there.
To summarize, this debate broadcast on Fox News Channel was the most substantive one yet and there was also a refreshing lack of insults and ad hominem attacks (Huh. I wonder why it was so different this time).
With that, here's my brief take on each candidate:
Jeb Bush: This was the most energized performance of Bush's campaign. No surprise given he was often beaten down by what-his-name's bombast, so it was obvious Bush was less skittish Thursday. While he has no shot in Iowa, Bush has been rising in New Hampshire and still has significant financial resources via his Super PAC. No, Jeb! will not be the GOP nominee in 2016 but he seems to have bought himself some extra time.
Ben Carson: It was refreshing that Carson didn't complain about being the last candidate to have an opportunity to speak. But once again seemed disengaged at times. At one point there was a YouTube question being aired featuring a young lady who immigrated to the U.S. from Mexico. Upon completion, the moderator said "Dr. Carson, .....that one's for you." Carson's reply of "Oh, great" had a tone of him being awakened from a nap. I've said it often that Dr. Carson is an admirable figure but he's in over his head here. Time to move on.
Chris Christie: The New Jersey governor resorted to his old playbook of chiding how U.S. senators can quibble over semantics and cut deals and blow hot air in subcommittees, whereas executives actually have to lead. He also reiterated a story he's shared previously about his wife Mary Pat being in the area of the World Trade Center on 9/11/2001 and how it solidified his commitment as a prosecutor. He also touted his record of entitlement reform, a subject which has been woefully lacking in these debates. Christie has no shot in Iowa but needs a top 3 performance in New Hampshire in order to justify his presence in this race.
Ted Cruz: It has been Cruz and what's-his-name in the top two spots in Iowa for some time now. Since what's-his-name was such a thumb sucker and decided not to show for this debate, Cruz had a golden opportunity to vault into the top spot. As has been the case previously, Cruz often went past his allotted time. And he was once again put on the defensive for his insistence that he wanted the "Gang of Eight" immigration bill passed 2-1/2 years ago only to now say his amendment was a "poison pill" used as an attempt to kill it.
Cruz's shining moment was when he was asked a question regarding a statement by Iowa's very popular governor Terry Branstad, who feels Cruz is being bankrolled by "Big Oil." Obviously such an affiliation flies in the face of the state's prolific ethanol industry. Cruz emphasized all natural resources should be cherished and that the government shouldn't be picking winners and losers, so no subsidies for anyone. Cruz needed that, as he had been scuffling up to that point (though it probably won him no points in Iowa). Overall Cruz was good, but his post debate interview with Megyn Kelly was fantastic. As such, people questioned why Cruz wasn't that assertive during the actual debate. I still don't know if Cruz will prevail in Iowa, but he may drop to third given (spoiler alert) Marco Rubio's solid performance.
John Kasich: One of the few (if not only) GOP candidates to say he would not strike down the Iran nuclear deal on day one of his presidency. Doubled down on that Thursday. Really no other Kasich moments stood out to me.
Kasich seems emboldened by endorsements from several New Hampshire newspapers, so he'll stay in the race at least through NH. A waste of time if you ask me.
Rand Paul: Sen. Paul had some nice moments, specifically on the disproportionate incarceration rates for drug crimes committed by minorities as well as addressing the out-of-control national debt (again, a subject discussed way too infrequently). He also called out Cruz for wanting it both ways on immigration.
It was obvious Paul had the most boisterous contingency among the audience. Unfortunately for the junior senator from Kentucky, it hasn't translated into any meaningful poll numbers.
Marco Rubio: Another commanding performance despite getting perhaps the toughest question of the night. The Fox moderators played a video montage of three different Rubio appearances where he seemed to take multiple positions on immigration, from being adamant against legalization, then for a path to legalization and then for a path to citizenship. I felt Rubio adequately answered those concerns (so too did a focus group) and the plan he has going forward.
Rubio's ace in the hole is he has consistently polled the best among GOP candidates vs. Hillary Clinton. He was smart to continue to emphasize that point, since many do not want a third Obama term. And his immigration stance actually plays better in a general election than in the Republican primary process.
Rubio doesn't have a realistic chance to win Iowa, but a second place finish would be huge. That seems to be a realistic possibility after his performance Thursday evening.
At this point, it's a three person race between Rubio, Cruz and what's-his-name.