Ted Cruz and Marco Rubio at last seized the challenge of trying to slow Donald Trump’s momentum before Super Tuesday. Dropping their long-running attacks on each other, they went after the billionaire aggressively—following sustained criticism that they were making no direct attempt to keep the front-runner from sewing up the nomination in March. But without coordination or emphasis, their scattershot attacks were less effective. Trump was ready to parry and retaliate, showing once again that he can’t be felled easily.
Confronted Trump with voluminous opposition research and a mocking smile, and stood his ground when the billionaire fought back, but also didn’t get any clean kills, let alone a knockout (except perhaps in the eyes of media and political elites). Spent so much time going after Trump that he had less opportunity to critique President Obama or sell his positive message. Still, gets credit for trying to change the game, and will inspire those who wish to see him stand one-on-one on the stage with Trump down the road.
Spirited and confident. Purposefully calm in the face of frequent attacks from Rubio and Cruz. Turned many question into opportunities to talk about his favored issues and project the key to his success: s-t-r-e-n-g-t-h. Team Rubio will claim they rattled him—and Trump did have to play a lot of defense (especially on Trump University, health care, and the hiring of non-Americans), but the front-runner emerges on the other side headed for a super Super Tuesday.
Jabbed at Trump (although less often, less intensely, and less effectually than did Rubio) while trying to be a genial populist. Measured and mild, playing it safe, thus largely ceding the alterna-Trump spotlight to Rubio. Now he has to hope his performance was appealing enough to win more votes—including in his must-win home state.
His message of unity was on display all night, even as his low-key style was mostly overwhelmed by the fireworks at center stage. Maintained the upbeat, can-do persona that brought him big numbers in New Hampshire, and touted his Ohio record on a range of issues, but at times lapsed into excessive government-speak. Likely won’t boost his short term prospects but his mid-March plan is alive and well.
Pleasantly wry, engaged, and evincing more determination than usual. Eloquently displayed why he was once a contender, but lacked the kind of breakthrough moment he needed for a comeback.
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.