The winners and losers of Thursday night’s debate:
Winner: It may have been a Donald Trump-less debate, but the GOP front-runner seems to have gotten what he wanted in skipping the contest, as chief Iowa rival Ted Cruz was beaten up by the six other candidates on stage and even the moderators. Trump’s counter-rally was carried live by CNN and he bolstered his own brand by bucking the conservative network. He also avoided too much in the way of sniping from the other candidates on stage, avoiding a potentially troubling situation days before Iowans head to the caucuses.
Loser: Cruz’s temperament and consistency were the subject of doubt and attacks, as Rand Paul and Marco Rubio took the opportunity to hit him. Cruz didn’t suffer any fatal blows, but it certainly presented headwinds to the man once believed to be the front-runner in the Hawkeye State. Taking heat from all sides also highlighted how much many in his party dislike Cruz—an unresolved challenge that he will ultimately have to deal with.
Even: Marco Rubio scored points on his chief rival, Cruz, accusing him of being an inconsistent conservative and highlighting his troublesome personality. His strong answers on foreign policy and criticism of Hillary Clinton were mitigated by a troublesome exchange with Jeb Bush, in which his one-time mentor finally drew blood on Rubio’s shifting positions on immigration reform.
Winners: Bush, John Kasich, and Chris Christie all had their best debates of the cycle, with Bush finally scoring points against Rubio, Kasich reinforcing his positive message, and Christie having a stand-out moment on Planned Parenthood funding and continuing to make the case against the senators.
Losers: The governors. There was little effort or opportunity to differentiate themselves from each other, and in the short run, only one can emerge victorious in New Hampshire if any of them is to have long-term success. The debate was a friendly match for them, but they’re going to have to step up their game next week in New Hampshire where it really matters.
Winner: Rand Paul returned to the undercard swinging against Cruz and attempting to claim his father, Ron Paul’s, libertarian mantle. With a small, but strong, libertarian contingent in the state, he could beat low expectations in Iowa, but it’s doubtful it will be enough to change the trajectory of his campaign.
Loser: Ben Carson with indecipherable answers on world affairs and a sleepy demeanor, even he seemed confused when moderators turned to him and asked questions. He has a strong floor of support in Iowa, but his staying power in the race beyond appears nonexistent.
Loser: The undercard. In its final showing this cycle, the happy hour debate became the angry debate, with the four candidates on stage complaining about the media and their lack of speaking time. For most of them, it may be their final time debating, either because they will drop out before the next debate, or because they won’t meet the higher standards set for the next contest on Feb. 6.
In other political news: Here’s how much Bernie Sanders would raise taxes. Vice President Joe Biden tells down-and-out Democrats: “Get up, man.” And Cruz aims at Rubio to stall his momentum.
Here are your must-reads:
Everything Changes When Republicans Debate Without Donald Trump
For two whole hours Thursday night, the Republican Party awoke from its 2016 fever dream, TIME’s Michael Scherer writes
Cruz Finds Himself in Crosshairs as Trump Skips Debate
The Texas senator found himself the target of attacks with the real estate magnate absent [TIME]
Trump Says He Got an Apology from Fox News
But the network claims he demanded $5 million to attend the debate, TIME’s Tessa Berenson reports from Trump’s plane
The Sad Sideshow of the Republican Undercard
TIME’s Alex Altman on the last gasp of the second stage
Donald Trump Doesn’t Win in Cheap Seats at Rally
TIME’s Jay Newton-Small finds he has supporters, but few caucus-goers
Sanders Campaign Questions Microsoft’s Role in Caucus Reporting
But it’s little more than a conspiracy theory [TIME]
It’s Still Bill Clinton, but the Old Magic Seems to Be Missing
The former president has lost some of his juice [New York Times]
“My focus is on me first and foremost, and then Trump as not the kind of leader we need was not focus-grouped or discussed. I didn’t talk to anybody about it. I just think it’s important. I didn’t talk to [Campaign Manager] Danny Diaz. I did it because I thought it was the right thing to do. I talked to enough people that were hurt.” — Jeb Bush to Bloomberg on his focus on Trump as his super PAC aims at Rubio
“My job is to run my campaign for the president, I should be the president of the United States, I’m going to be the president of the United States.” — Jim Gilmore, who earned a spot in the undercard debate Thursday night, the first he’s qualified for since August, in an interview with MSNBC
Bits and Bites
In Emotional Meeting, Biden Tells Down-and-Out Democrats: “Get Up, Man” [Washington Post]
Sanders and Clinton Play Debate Chicken [Politico]
Attack Ad From Ted Cruz Signals Marco Rubio’s Gains in Iowa [New York Times]
Meet the Clinton Staffer Who Has Devoted His Life to Her Cause [Washington Post]
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