The typically raucous South Carolina debate audience had plenty of opportunity to hoot and holler, with inter-candidate squabbling and red-meat anti-Obama and anti-Clinton rhetoric. Front-runners Trump and Cruz dominated the stage, Christie and Rubio asserted themselves as establishment contenders with flair and muscle, Bush and Kasich gave earnest, fluent presentations. Two extended scraps between Trump and Cruz defined the evening, but were unlikely to change the contours of a race that is just days away from seeing real voters vote.
Confident, unafraid, crisp, and without the self-consciousness he occasionally displayed in earlier debates. During his extended tiff with Cruz over the Texan’s citizenship, he kept the Canada issue in the public eye and never lost the crux of his agenda or his cool. Eloquently defended his native New York against Cruz criticism. Wisely made nice with South Carolina Governor Nikki Haley. Had plenty of chances to invoke his core themes, utter his cherished phrases, and make the most of his airtime. His best debate of the cycle, certain to please his loyal fans and potentially expand his support. With the calendar page finally turned to 2016, he sees the nomination—and the White House—in front of him and continues to drive towards his goals.
Poised, on-message, fluid, and cuttingly anti-Obama. Rallied Republicans and railed against the media, including Fox. Went hard and fast at Trump both when defending his citizenship and nudging Trump’s “New York values,” picking a bigger, nastier fight than perhaps necessary. As usual, a smooth performer, controlling his tone and message, and making use of the well-timed pause. Did nothing to jeopardize his top-tier status, but failed to take down the front-runner.
Through force of personality, made almost every chance at the mic a moment of strength. Continued his practice of addressing the audience at home, rather than the moderators. Selling leadership, leadership, leadership—and selling it well. But not well enough or often enough to allow him to vault cleanly over his rivals into the top tier.
A little overly rehearsed and speedy, but showed off his impressive skill at seizing the spotlight and holding audience attention. Late in the night, clashed with Cruz on immigration and national security, with neither candidate earning a clear win, but Rubio escaping without taking a hit on his Gang of Eight history. Picked a fight with Chris Christie that fell flat. Emphasized biography less and ideas more than in the past. Commanding, charismatic, but not dominant, dropping out of the action for long stretches.
Talked a little fast at the start, as if still finding his debate footing and eager to get across his key message. First targeted Clinton and Obama, then shifted to Trump, never hitting the GOP front-runner hard enough to knock him off stride or prove to the establishment he is the right man to take on the billionaire. Showed off maturity, shrewdness, and accomplishments, but never found a consistent way to stand out.
Sold his record with his preferred, natural, rather folksy demeanor. No breakthrough moments of strength, but steady all night and positioned, particularly in New Hampshire, to be the beneficiary of a last-man-standing derby. Showed improvement as a debater and in presenting the distinguished record of which he is proud, but still not a good fit for the challenges of a cacophonous debate stage.
Higher energy and more focused than in the early campaign months, speaking with amplified speed and clarity. But seemed easily forgotten and out of the mix for most of the debate.
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.