Seized a place in the center of the action, far more so than in the previous two debates, and used his time well. Heatedly challenged the moderators for focusing on politics rather than on policy (and he was right and the audience enthusiastically agreed). Stood up for his colleagues on the stage and spoke out more forcefully than the rest against President Barack Obama and Democratic rival Hillary Clinton. Tossed in a little bio along the way. The former debating champion finally hit his stride, stepping into the void frequently left by the typically low-key Ben Carson and surprisingly low-key Donald Trump. A steady, nuanced performance filled with many moments of strength likely to swell his support and certain to buttress his already abundant confidence.
Delivered uniformly strong answers all night, and showed poise, seriousness, and passion. Got the crowd on his side by sequentially smoking the moderator and former Governor Jeb Bush when he was critiqued for missing Senate votes, responding with verve by offering up two rehearsed and effective answers. Was loose and conversational while discussing his family history and middle class struggles. Like Cruz, won the audience over by attacking the “mainstream” media with a killer line. By staying on message and crushing Bush’s first attempt to take him down in person, laid more claim to the job than his former mentor. More bundlers will come his way; will the voters follow?
Steady Eddie all night, never wavering from the demeanor his supporters just love. Laughed easily. Didn’t get flustered when talking about his tax plan, his views of homosexuality, or his association with a sketchy product. Avoided scrapes and scratches, stuck by his Tea Party roots, and marches out of Boulder with his assets intact.
Showed the exact personality (tough, knowing, aggressive, sharp, funny) he wants to project and broke through early on in the night. On several occasions smartly executed the device of addressing the audience at home, rather than the moderators or studio audience. Always on offense and in character, he scored big when indicting a question about fantasy football and pushing back hard on a moderator’s interruption. By eclipsing Bush and Governor John Kasich, he positions himself for a comeback to fill the establishment slot.
Smartly pitched his core message on jobs and immigration early on, then delivered a trademark takedown of Kasich (one of the few criticisms he aimed at a rival all night). Also offered plugs for his ability to turn around bankruptcies and his opposition to super-PACS. Didn’t dominate the stage as he has in the past, but didn’t seem to mind.
A decent performance but no WOW moments as in the previous debate, clearly missing Trump as a foil and failing to make waves by substituting Clinton as her main target. No errors, but rather low-energy, and no great shakes or dominating moments.
So eager to deliver his prepared message indicting Carson and Trump for their lack of policy specifics that he came across as too intense and angry—and then faded away. Tried to sell himself as an old Washington hand who can fix Washington. If you try to kill the kings, you must kill the kings. Kasich’s lunge and miss drained him of mojo for the night.
Once again pressed the moderators for additional time; when allowed to talk, he was more folksy than memorable. Even on entitlement programs, where he has an unusual position within the party, he failed to create any moments of distinction or heft.
Despite a firm and steady tone, did not get much time to talk about much of anything, let alone his agenda. Was not given equal time by any means and complained about it. Never got into a groove or held the floor long enough to set himself apart.
Got cut off early by the moderators when he tried to break in and disappeared from the fray for a long spell. Then returned with his first face-to-face pre-planned attack on Rubio and utterly failed. Had trouble sustaining the tone he wanted during his answers, successfully interjecting or grabbing the spotlight (thus ending up with scant stage time), or selling himself as the most qualified to be president. A weak, non-alpha performance in every way that will panic some of his donors and will not win him any new converts.
Note: Grades reflect many aspects of the candidates' performance, including style, substance, and crowd reaction, and whether a candidate seemed to improve or hurt his or her overall standing based on the debate.