Practice has not made them perfect, but they are a heckuva lot better.
The top eight Republican presidential candidates all showed some benefits of four debates' worth of experience. No one offered a super-stellar performance—and no one tanked. All had plenty of time to talk about their plans and dreams, which will allow them to make convincing cases to their donors and other backers that they leave Milwaukee with at least some momentum to carry them through the holiday season.
Impressive, fiery, and the master of the emotional pause. Strong answers on immigration, the economy, and spending cuts. Foreshadowed future intent with a mischievous but oblique shot at Senator Marco Rubio over sugars subsidies. Demonstrated he’s honed the explanation of his tax plan into crowd-pleasing specifics wrapped in a thematic shell. Continued his practice of addressing the TV camera, not the moderators or other candidates, to strong effect. A style and issue emphasis with the potential to broaden his appeal.
Effortlessly kicked into his family story/American dream/21st century rhetoric, per usual, weaving in stump-speech lines that will have sounded rehearsed to some and revelatory to others. Didn’t back down from Senator Rand Paul’s challenge on taxes and military spending, suggesting he won’t fold easily. Didn't get caught up in an immigration discussion that could have created trouble for him. Again lived up to the expectation that he is the best political athlete on the stage.
Showed a mighty rebound from his last debate performance. Despite an awkward early effort to demand his share of speaking time when Governor John Kasich tried to claim the mic, he soon displayed his trademark policy mastery. Consistently executed his plan to fire on former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and President Barack Obama rather than on his GOP rivals. Struck a chord with economic conservatives by hitting the president on regulations. Showed his true heart by defending his immigration stand on moral and political grounds, earning a warm crowd reaction. Had a few minor stumbles—he lost a back-and-forth when Donald Trump condescended to him. But overall, as smoothly articulate as he has been in any high-profile event this year (although he still relies on sarcasm as his humor delivery system). His aides and supporters will breathe a massive sigh of relief for a comeback he simply had to deliver.
Efficiently turned a question about his biography controversy into an attack on the media and Clinton, earning applause, without creating a news moment to feed the controversy. Talked taxes without much specificity but also without appearing out of this depth, although he failed to deliver when addressing the Islamic State question. Energy level a notch above his norm without seeming forced or jarring. His critics will find major fault with his continued lack of specifics, but he likely won't pay a price with his supporters.
Better from the get-go than she was in the third debate. Crowd-pleasing outsider/anti-establishment rhetoric. Offered a few of her bumper sticker solutions on the economy, but didn’t delve very deep. Cheerfully boasted about her international relationships and demonstrated knowledge about the military. Strong but not as dominant as she was during her star turn debate performances, and lacked standout moments.
Wonky and populist all at once, on the Fed and tax reform. More gracious and less bitter than in previous debates, even when he took on Rubio on taxes and defense spending. Benefited from the smaller cast on stage to have his best debate to date.
Offered the more sedate persona he has been using on the debate stage (as opposed to his charismatic and comedic stump stylings), punctuated by a few outbursts. Expertly worked his tax plan into an answer on the minimum wage. Got softball questions about immigration and trade—and delivered his core message. Tangled with Kasich, mocked Bush, but left Carson alone. Uncharacteristically didn’t take the bait when sniped at by Paul on China, but belatedly came back to hit Fiorina after she mocked him over his Putin claims. (And got himself booed for his uncomfortably sexist-seeming complaint about Fiorina interrupting the conversation). Trump, although slightly subdued, was Trump all night when he spoke, which has worked out for him so far.
Sounded a little overly grim at times, but also determined and serious. Fought for floor time. Purposely picked a fight with Trump on immigration and pushed back hard when the billionaire tweaked him. Had a wobbly moment with the audience when he seemed to be defending bank bailouts to protect consumers. After a strong start, lost a little steam and left a lingering impression of being too testy and too uncomfortably out of step with the party.