A lot of sound, not a lot of sound bites.

Photographer: Justin Sullivan/Getty Images

Nine Republicans Debate One Issue, and No One Makes a Mark

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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In a new wrinkle on CNN on Tuesday, Republicans in Las Vegas were asked to debate basically one issue -- terrorism. If you were hoping to see candidates well versed in foreign policy and national security, the results were ... not encouraging. There was a little substance, along with a whole lot of mush.

But for now, the horse race. 

It's been a while since the candidates last met (Nov. 10), and the nomination contest has sorted itself out quite a bit. Donald Trump is still the polling leader. Ted Cruz is now first in Iowa polls and second nationally, and appears well on his way to consolidating support from party actors who are social conservatives and perhaps all of those who are most conservative. Marco Rubio is third in the polls, but is the only real coalition-style candidate in the race, and as such is picking up support from elected officials and other party actors. 

So the first question is: Did this debate allow any of the others to break through? Jeb Bush tried by taking on Trump, and Bush will probably get a fair amount of publicity from that. They butted heads over at least two extended periods, and this time Bush wasn't a clear loser. Which doesn't mean it will help in the polls. He's improving, but he's still not especially good at these things, and doesn't quite seem to know who his intended audience might be. He has not yet adapted to a world in which Republicans don't simply default to the nearest Bush. 

As for the rest, maybe Chris Christie was able to sustain a bit of momentum in New Hampshire. If there was a sound bite that either conservative media or the "neutral" press will run with, I didn't notice it -- from him or any of the others, in the main event or the kiddie table debate. If anyone is poised to surge, it won't be this debate that started it.

Trump was mostly subdued this time, and as always he disappeared when real policy questions were on the table. His interest is really engaged only when the conversation turns to him. Among other things, Trump's answer to a question late in the debate made it clear he knows nothing about the U.S. nuclear weapons arsenal, which in bygone years would have been a major gaffe by a presidential candidate. 

Cruz is quick on his feet and knows how to speak to a conservative audience. For his first debate as a potential target, he did fine. However, if Rubio wants to set up a dividing line to portray Cruz as a "dove" (or isolationist) alongside Rand Paul, the evening couldn't have worked out better. During the matinee debate, Lindsey Graham constantly lumped Paul and Cruz together, and in prime time Paul repeatedly jumped in to take Cruz's side. If Rubio is correct about where the Republican Party is, he's going to pick up a lot of support from Republican foreign policy professionals. 

Rubio did nothing to spark any progress in the polls, but also nothing to scare party actors away from continuing their slow march toward him. In previous contests, it's been a good bet that where the bulk of the party actors are, the voters will eventually follow. Rubio also, for whatever it's worth, does actually demonstrate knowledge about foreign policy and national security (or at least substantive talking points). Whether the policies he advocates are good ideas or not, he doesn't settle for repeating that the U.S. strategy should be "winning," and he doesn't pretend that saying a few magic words will defeat Islamic State. 

As for Wolf Blitzer and the other moderators: They did a good job of pushing for substance, and that's all we can ask.

  1. One possible exception: Ben Carson, no longer high in the polls, wasn't attacked this time and therefore wasn't on the defensive; it's possible he'll remind his potential fans why they like him so much and regain some of the ground he's lost. Not predicting it, but wouldn't surprise me.

  2. Of course, if the conservative media decides to push one of them, there's enough material to do so -- but that would be about that portion of the party, not about debate performances.

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:
Philip Gray at philipgray@bloomberg.net