National security dominated in a debate that featured limited sustained candidate clashes and not a lot of risk taking. No candidate truly excelled, and no one had a dreadful evening. That means the race likely will go into the New Year without much of a change in the rank order of the candidates—the leaders coming into the debate are the winners leaving the debate. Standing out on such a crowded stage remains a real challenge.
Executed his decision to define his evening with a sustained effort to take down Trump. Early on scored an effective moment by deeming his rival a “chaos” candidate, later impugned Trump’s past statements about national security, and intrepidly mocked Trump throughout. Didn’t back down when the billionaire insulted him in return, surely winning points from his own supporters and maybe some new anti-Trump adherents as well. Perhaps even got under Trump’s skin once or twice. When he wasn’t hitting the front-runner, brought his “A” game talking about national security. If the establishment eventually decides it must select a contestant from the current crop who is willing to take on Trump without flinching, Jeb might find his path to a comeback.
As in the last debate, gave a commanding yet measured performance, standing out with a unique style and emphasis. Often addressed voters directly in an us-versus-them manner. Took advantage of the three squabbling senators to tout his executive experience without confronting any particular opponent head on. Confident, assertive, carefully non-abrasive, and driving towards his goal.
At the center of attention for the first time and let the conversation come to him. When a moderator question invited him to hit Trump, he instead expressed sympathy with his rival and hit President Obama. Showed no such concern about swatting Rubio as part of a night-long tit-for-tat, and emerged victorious although often deep in the senate weeds. Confident as always when defending his record on domestic surveillance limits. Left himself a bit of a problem when he failed to own up to his recent private (and recorded) comments questioning Trump’s ability to convince voters of his fitness to be commander-in-chief, which blemished his evening overall.
Strong opening statement followed by lots of airtime. Teamed up with Cruz to joust with Rubio on several issues, including about border security. Along with Bush, fearlessly gave voice to anti-Trump sentiment by suggesting The Donald isn’t a serious person. Consistently demonstrated his knowledge and strong intellect. Plucky and true to himself, with powerful results.
Clearly had Cruz on his mind, but never found a way to bring his rival down, even with armfuls of opposition research; the negative tact might have undermined the essence of his strong past debate performances. Finally got pressed on his support for a path to citizenship, creating more troubles for him down the road on all sides. Perhaps too intense and somber at times. A mostly solid performance by normal standards but not up to the level he’s achieved in previous debates.
Began with an opening statement that reflected a desire to project seriousness about fighting Islamic terrorists. As in the past and unlike his rivals, didn't jockey for airtime. Typically didn’t vacillate when asked about shutting down part of the Internet or his other controversial statements. Came to praise Cruz, not attack him, and never wavered. Employed his favored familiar buzzwords such as “strength.” Made news by stating that he wouldn’t run as an independent if he is denied the Republican nomination. Another performance that will be derided by the establishment and much of the media as vague, unspecific, bombastic, and unpresidential—yet one his supporters will likely find winning. Not his best effort, but did nothing to risk his front-runner status.
Unfurled the greatest hits of her biography, résumé, relationships, and glib one-liners to try to recapture her lost momentum. Touted her tech record repeatedly. Took some glancing shots at Trump but didn’t fight her way into the mix effectively.
Displayed his knowledge of the military, diplomacy, and technology. Solid tone and content, and a very strong coda moment about bringing the nation together after a big Trump-Bush kerfuffle—but overall he wasn’t given enough time to achieve a much-needed breakthrough performance.
Wanted to step up on national security and be more aggressive in general, but simply lacks the temperament and demeanor to pull it off. Still straining to differentiate himself on foreign policy. Studied hard and prepared more than ever, but didn’t solve his fundamental problem of how to thrive when terrorism is front and center.
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.