All that said, there must be a "biggest loser" among the candidates themselves, and the answer here is an emphatic: Jeb Bush.
Bush went into the debate badly needing a performance that justified his continued candidacy. He delivered one that just might have driven a stake through it. He was as listless as ever, with the panicked look of a boy about to be punched by the school bully every time a moderator addressed him. There is nothing comfortable about him as a candidate at this point, and that was clear well before the moderators made a hash of things.
But most devastating was the exchange he had with Marco Rubio early on in the debate, when there's a pretty good chance people were still watching. Bush and his team had indicated for days a desire to tangle with his fellow Floridian, specifically on the issue of his missed votes in the Senate. Right after Rubio had finished handling -- quite well -- a question about it from the moderators, Bush swung ... and missed. He tried to lecture Rubio "as a constituent" about the missed votes, but he came across more like a disappointed dad. And then Rubio, clearly ready for the attack, counter-punched about Bush's failure to criticize John McCain for missing Senate votes during his 2008 run. "The only reason you’re doing it now is because we're running for the same position and someone has convinced you that attacking me is going to help you," the younger statesman said.
Shortly thereafter came this:
It seems stupid-crazy to think the next Republican to drop out of the race would not be George Pataki, Jim Gilmore or Rick Santorum, but the man who has
already raised some $133 million
, more than Rubio and Ted Cruz combined. But whether Bush is the next candidate to leave the race or not, his candidacy seems dead in the water more than a year from Election Day, a development even more stunning than Donald Trump's months-long run atop the opinion polls.
Speaking of Trump, he did little to nothing to make me think he will reverse his recent, gradual slide. Other quick hitters:
- Rubio was the clear winner of the night in my view. Not only with the way he KO'd Bush, but he led the counter-charge from the stage against the moderators that ultimately became the night's top storyline. In a debate short on questions that could prompt substantive answers, Rubio shined the brightest.
- Cruz also did quite well, despite a very shaky start. ("If you want someone to grab a beer with, I may not be that guy. But if you want someone to drive you home, I will get the job done and I will get you home," he said, by way of explaining his "biggest weakness" as a candidate.) He nailed points about taxes, Social Security and the economy. On the last of those, he managed to touch on Democrats, big government, trial lawyers, the plight of single mothers, religion, and how poorly women have fared under the Obama presidency.
- Carly Fiorina did well but didn't hit any home runs. I came away thinking she would have done better with more screen time, but it turns out she got
the most of anyone
, so maybe she was a little less impressive than I initially thought. She joked at the outset that she'd heard her biggest weakness was the need to smile more, but after that answer I don't recall a lot of grins from her. Still, she did nothing to hurt herself, had some good answers about her tenure at H-P and about
, and could benefit if Bush continues to fall.
- John Kasich would've been poised to benefit from a Bush fall, and seemingly has been waiting for that the entire race. But while he began strong by arguing his experience made him a better choice than "someone who cannot do this job" -- what seemed like a clear reference to outsiders Trump and Ben Carson -- he faded from there and wound up with a mostly unmemorable performance despite getting the third-most speaking time (a greatly outsized amount given his poll numbers).
- Carson was as meh as ever. I recognize I am not the audience he's seeking, but I always come away from these debates truly wondering what people see in him. Yes, he comes from outside the political system. Yes, he is an obviously brilliant man. I just don't think those are enough to qualify him for the job, and on questions about taxes and the economy he sometimes seemed out of his depth.
- Mike Huckabee, Rand Paul, Chris Christie: Thanks for playing, but you're going nowhere.