Yes, they discussed issues.

Photographer: Scott Olson/Getty Images

Rubio's Gift: Avoiding Traps

Jonathan Bernstein is a Bloomberg View columnist. He taught political science at the University of Texas at San Antonio and DePauw University and wrote A Plain Blog About Politics.
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If you want a headline for Tuesday night's Republican debate in terms of the horse race, it's this: Nothing much happened, and therefore the march of Republican party actors toward Marco Rubio most likely will continue. 

Oh, plenty happened, both in the matinee and the main event. Candidates got in their prepared zingers; several did a good job discussing substantive policies; others sounded foolish on various subjects. But six days ago I noted that Rubio was moving up rapidly in endorsements from Republicans. Since then, he's added another senator and three more members of the House. It's still not certain that the party has decided for him, but it's looking better and better.

And nothing on Tuesday night should change that. His debate skills are solid. He's especially good at knowing exactly which prepared answer to match to which question -- far better than any of his competitors, if not quite as good so far as Hillary Clinton (who, after all, has a lot more experience at this part of the game). 

He's also good at keeping his head down when that's the best choice. At one point there was a major dust-up between several candidates over immigration which Rubio -- perhaps the most vulnerable on the issue -- managed to ignore entirely. When he does speak, he avoids the traps that exist all over the place. To his credit, his policy statements are grounded enough in reality so that those who care about such things aren't going to pick on him as a target. On Twitter during the debate, about the worst hits he took were about being overly robotic -- which, as Mitt Romney and Al Gore can tell you, isn't the worst criticism a candidate for a party's nomination can encounter.

Most of the other candidates did fine, too. No one was smacked down the way Jeb Bush was (by Rubio) in the last debate, or the way Donald Trump was (by Carly Fiorina) in the second debate. To my ears, neither Bush nor John Kasich is especially strong in this format, but they each had their moments this time. Ben Carson almost disappeared for the first two hours -- but had (again, to my ears) by far the strongest closing statement, reinforcing the reasons why Christian conservatives like him. Even on the undercard event, most candidates did well. It's a skilled bunch.

The most interesting performance, perhaps, was Rand Paul's. Early in this electoral cycle, Paul made a play to be a serious nomination candidate, playing down libertarianism and areas where he parted ways with the party. That failed utterly. On Tuesday night, more so than in the other debates, he was his father's son, pushing policies (on foreign policy, on the Federal Reserve and other issues) that may keep him on the main stage for a while, if these issues connect, even if everyone knows he's not going higher. 

Overall, the moderators were the best yet: The candidates got a chance to explain their preferences. Yes, that meant they could rely on their regular talking points, but that was fine with me. 

But, I have to say, as I have before, that the level of basic knowledge of government and public affairs is depressingly low among the Republican candidates. Or at least, they're good at pretending to know little. Carson, Trump and Fiorina, in particular, aren't up to speed on numerous issues. And some of the others don't sound connected to reality --  again, that may be a strategic choice. Ted Cruz, for example, keeps pushing the gold standard -- and suggested, at one point, that economic booms and busts only showed up in the U.S. after the nation abandoned gold. Yikes! 

Not that any of these criticisms will hurt this gang among conservative talk-show hosts and bloggers. 

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

To contact the author of this story:
Jonathan Bernstein at jbernstein62@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor responsible for this story:
Katy Roberts at kroberts29@bloomberg.net