CHARLESTON, SOUTH CAROLINA, February 6, 2016 — If ever there was a time to have a poor debate performance, this was it. While this most recent GOP debate came three days before the New Hampshire Primary, it was also held the night before Super Bowl 50. While ABC held this debate, CBS in the middle of the debate made a major NFL announcement.
Eight new members of the Pro Football Hall of Fame were selected, including the late Oakland Raiders legend Ken Stabler and Green Bay Packers gunslinger Brett Favre. If ever a debate would be quickly forgotten, this one was it.
In the days before the debate, former Pennsylvania Senator Rick Santorum, former Arkansas Governor Mike Huckabee, and Kentucky Senator Rand Paul all dropped out of the presidential race. This left only nine candidates, removing the need for the undercard debate.
The criteria set by ABC was simple. For candidates to participate in this debate, they had to have:
- Finished in the top three in Iowa OR:
- Finished in the top six in New Hampshire polls OR:
- Finished in the top six in national polls.
Former businesswoman Carly Fiorina and former Virginia Governor Jim Gilmore did not make the cut. Fiorina supporters passionately argued that she finished ahead of other candidates in Iowa. This argument was irrelevant, since that was not the criteria. The Republican Party is about rules, and ABC properly resisted overtures to include Fiorina in the debate.
The moderators were Martha Raddatz, David Muir, Josh McKelveen, and Mary Katharine Ham.
Adding an extra layer of poignancy was the debate falling on what would have been President Ronald Reagan’s 105th birthday.
As always, participants letter grades are based not on polls, but on how they performed only in this debate.
New Jersey Governor Chris Christie: He was magnificent. He went toe to toe with Rubio and beat him on the issue of experience. Rubio is a tough debater, but Christie is like Joe Pesci in My Cousin Vinny. Grade: A+
Former Florida Governor Jeb Bush: Somebody lit a fire under his hide, most likely his mother Barbara Bush. Jeb usually gets crushed by Trump. In this debate Jeb beat up Trump on eminent domain. Grade: A
Texas Senator Ted Cruz: He handled the early controversy over Carson and the Iowa Caucus very well, apologizing profusely and moving on. He showed a softer side in telling the story of how his sister died from a drug overdose. It was moving, and took some of the hard edges off. Grade: B+
Florida Senator Marco Rubio: This was his worst debate. He got hammered by Chris Christie on the experience issue. He recovered to issue a thoughtful and forceful defense of the use of coercive interrogation methods. His remarks about putting Hillary Clinton on the defensive over abortion were excellent. The fact that he is still standing after the beating he looks showed how tough he is. Grade: B—
Retired Neurosurgeon Ben Carson: He had an odd moment where he refused to take the stage for a few moments, with no explanation given. He remains a decent, thoughtful man who just gets overshadowed. In past debates he had breakout moments. In this one he just faded into the background. Grade: C
Businessman Donald Trump: This was his worst debate. His humor normally works. On this night it failed. He normally beats up Jeb, but this one time Jeb slapped him around on eminent domain. His closing statement was awful. The shot he took at Ted Cruz is fine during the debate, but closing statements are supposed to be positive and uplifting. Trump even attacked the audience in attendance. Grade: D+
Ohio Governor John Kasich: He never, ever, answers a question in the allotted time. Not one time in the debate did he finish his answer on time. It is obnoxious, and takes away from his message. Does anyone remember anything he said? No. Grade: D
Mary Katharine Ham: She is a smart, thoughtful individual who conducted herself with professionalism. She has had more pain in the last few months than any person should ever have to cope with. Yet she handled her job with grace and dignity. She was flawless. Grade: A+
David Muir: He was nondescript and boring, which meant he did his job. Grade: B
Josh McKelveen: He did take one cheap shot at Ted Cruz, but for the most part played it straight down the line. Grade: B—
Martha Raddatz: She was abrasive, and took a cheap shot at Cruz that was unnecessary. Grade: D