Chris Christie, Jeb Bush, and John Kasich showed confidence and determination, with the New Jersey governor forcing Marco Rubio into rehearsed, canned answers that were widely mocked on social media and elsewhere. Rubio's performance was the story of the night, while Donald Trump smoothed his tone and honed his message in a bid to close the deal with New Hampshire voters.
Executed his plan to tee off on Rubio's inexperience and lured him into a series of rough back-and-forths, prompting Rubio to awkwardly recite (and recite again!) prepared responses. Had the crowd on his side throughout the debate. Was strong and eloquent selling his record and addressing varied issues. Said all week he would try to take down Rubio at a place and time of his choosing—and seems to have succeeded in dramatic fashion, creating chaos in the end-game Granite State jockeying.
Returned to signature issues, such as immigration, that launched him into the lead, with crisp, well formed answers and a less bombastic, cooler demeanor, even (impressively) remaining calm and confident when the establishment audience booed him. Reassured voters he is ready to do the job. If the public polls are correct, likely sewed up a big Tuesday win.
Watched while Christie hit Rubio hard, then piled on, then effectively sold his own record. Got ample time to talk, initially in part by forcing his way in, as his mother publicly advised him to do. As always, sharp and thoughtful on policy foreign and domestic. Stood up to Trump on eminent domain with confidence. Another strong performance.
Brought in late, but got in plenty of his best lines, confident from his time on the ground that New Hampshire voters are buying what he's selling. Savvy, charming, and serious. If he's riding a wave in the days before the primary, kept it going.
Played it safe with familiar rhetoric rather than lashing out even when prodded by the moderators. Mild and patient. A Texan in New England is never on home turf and he was hammered early on the Iowa/Carson contretemps, so he did just fine but no better. The South awaits.
Got plenty of time early on because of the Iowa flap involving Cruz, but squandered it on process and grievance, and then faded. Likable as always and made a lot of his standard jokes.
Played right into Christie's hands by giving the same canned answer again and again after being hit by his rival for inexperience—and for canned answers. Compounded his problems by defending President Obama's skill all night and visibly perspiring. On defense on immigration too, also in part thanks to Christie's needling. Mostly fine on foreign policy, but no moments good enough to erase the new- and old-media fascination with his disastrous face-offs with the Jersey brawler. Picked the wrong night to play into his opponents' hands and will now be subjected to intense, negative scrutiny of his rhetoric for a long, long time.
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.