Photographer: Scott Olson/Getty Images

Good Night for Trump, Bad One for Substance

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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Yes, it was a little weird that two Republicans Thursday night referred to the current president of the United States as a child. And, yes, when it comes to policy, Republicans remain very long on applause lines and very, very short on substance. 

But let's get right to the performance of the seven candidates in the sixth Republican debate, in North Charleston, South Carolina.

Donald Trump had at least two big moments, defending himself as the candidate of anger and hitting back against Ted Cruz's slur on "New York values." Trump crushed the latter, invoking the reaction New Yorkers displayed to the Sept. 11 attacks, even getting Cruz to applaud. Other than that, Trump was his usual self, perking up when the subject was polls. He didn't quite get the better of an exchange with Cruz about whether the Texas senator, who was born in Canada to an American-born mother, qualifies as a "natural born citizen," a constitutional requirement for the presidency. It didn't matter; Trump won the most entertaining segment of the night. 

Ted Cruz mixed it up with Trump twice, and with his fellow freshman senator, Marco Rubio, over taxes and immigration. Rubio accused Cruz of claiming to be a strong conservative while actually flip-flopping in service to his political ambition. I don't think the charge will dislodge Cruz's support among Iowa social conservatives, but it isn't impossible.

Marco Rubio gave his typical performance: extremely prepared, perfectly adequate, rarely exciting. Nothing at all to convince people he's in strong shape, but probably nothing to hurt him, either. 

Ben Carson had a very good debate by his standards. He was alert, and mostly stuck to the themes -- praise of common sense, opposition to political correctness -- that are what drew people to him in the first place. The retired neurosurgeon's campaign is in tatters these days, but I wouldn't be surprised if he got a bump in the polls from this one.

Jeb Bush just can't seem to find anything that works. His attacks on Trump's advocacy for a temporary ban on entry into the U.S. by Muslims were admirable, in my view, but were delivered with little conviction. Rather than condemn Trump's proposal, he merely asked the New York businessman to reconsider. As a result, Bush looked weak instead of courageous. Which Trump promptly pointed out. 

Chris Christie, like Carson, gave a performance that will appeal to those predisposed to liking him. Those people are not easily found in Iowa, and probably in South Carolina, either. There may be enough of them in New Hampshire, which has the first primary on Feb. 9, to keep the New Jersey governor in the race. But in other most states, the attacks Rubio leveled at him for being too liberal will be tough for him to defend to very conservative Republican electorates. 

John Kasich does not do presidential debates well. I've been more optimistic than most about the Ohio governor's chances, but he did nothing to help himself tonight, and appears to be the least likely of the mainstream conservative group (Rubio, Bush, Christie, Kasich) to survive New Hampshire. 

Last point? I still don't understand why the other candidates don't simply call the front-runner in polls "LiberalDonaldTrump." They have plenty of ammunition for that sort of attack, and it's a proven winner in Republican primaries. Instead, the attacks tend to be personal -- he's "unhinged," in Bush's words -- which as far as I can see only works in Trump's favor with his supporters. 

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

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