DES MOINES, Janu. 29, 2016 — The Republican contenders for the White House met for their final debate before the Feb. 1 Iowa Caucus. The Fox News debate was a spirited affair, with subplots that began before the debate itself. One candidate boycotted this debate. Another candidate who boycotted the last debate did show up this time. A third candidate was thrilled to qualify for the undercard debate after repeatedly being excluded.
With many Iowa voters making up their minds whom to caucus for in the final days, this was the last chance to make an impression. The whole debate was substantive.
Iowans do not wax poetic. They like to get right down to business. So in pure meat and potatoes form, here is the debate analysis complete with letter grades for those involved with this debate. As always, the grades are solely based on how people performed in this specific debate, regardless of their standing in the polls.
Unfortunately for those in the lower tier, none of the candidates did anything to change their fortunes. There is too little time. At least two of these four candidates may drop out of the race right after the Iowa caucus.
Former Virginia Gov. Jim Gilmore — He was just glad to be there. Despite being dead last in the polls of all 12 candidates, he showed people who he was. He did have one great line: “I’ll veto gun control faster than it takes Hillary Clinton to delete her emails.” Despite having an impressive resume, he just comes across too often as nondescript. Grade: B+
Former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum — He went after President Barack Obama hard and was very effective. Obama personally attacks people. He tears them down. How can you work with somebody who does that? “He is the most divisive person in my lifetime.” Santorum ably showed why he is qualified, but did nothing to change his fortunes. Grade: B+
Former Businesswoman Carly Fiorina — She hammered Hillary Clinton on Benghazi. However, she did not have that one memorable line to have people buzzing. She is smart and savvy, but needed a breakout moment. It did not come. Grade: B
Former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee — Huckabee showed his best and worse. His best is his sense of humor. Socialism and the government control it brings is for people who “don’t have an IQ above plant life.” His worst is his biggest policy weakness, the accusation that he is a tax-raiser. Asked why the Club For Growth dislikes him, Huckabee attacked the Club For Growth. That will not work among a Republican electorate that wants their candidates to be as pure on taxes as they are on social issues. Grade: C+
Martha McCollum — She was professional, polite and every bit as intelligent as she normally comes across. She kept the focus on the issues and not herself. Grade: A
Bill Hemmer — Overall he was fine. His only lapse was when he asked Jim Gilmore why anybody would bother caucusing for him. The question seemed condescending, but Hemmer did not ask it in an obnoxious or mean-spirited way. Other than that, he kept the trains running effectively. Grade: A—
This debate was upside down from the previous debates. After watching establishment candidates get battered by the insurgents, this was the night that the leading candidates got knocked around and the lower tier establishment candidates did well. Whether this debate has a shelf life longer than five minutes remains to be seen, but roles for the most part were reversed.
New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie — He is a great debater, and he had the line of the night: “The days for the Clintons in public housing are over.” He went after Hillary Clinton all night, serving up red meat. When asked about Bridgegate, he was all over it. “I immediately fired the people responsible. That is what you do as a leader.” By turning his fire on Hillary and not on his fellow Republicans, he came across as the adult in the room among squabbling children. “Stop the Washington bull” also played well. Grade: A+
Former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush — He seems to get better with each debate. He was awful in early debates, but was crisp and solid in this one. On immigration, he turned the tables and took down Marco Rubio. In previous dustups, Rubio won. Not tonight. in contrasting himself with Donald Trump, Bush showed the perfect blend of toughness missed with compassion. “You can deal with the threat of terror and also be aspirational across the board.” He showed passion the he said we should fire those guilty of “sheer incompetence” at the Veterans Administration. His kind words about his family was touching. Grade: A—
Kentucky Sen. Rand Paul — Maybe the time off did him good, like a football team resting during a bye week to get healthy. He earned a failing grade last time for skipping the previous debate. This was easily his best performance. He spoke eloquently about the racial element of the drug war. Paul has been a punching bag for most of these debates. This time he got the better of the exchanges.
He said that Cruz has an “authenticity problem.” Whether one agrees with Paul or not on issues, he really showed himself to be a steady, calm guy. He made the liberty argument effectively, while receiving praise from Rubio and Cruz. He was very effective in reiterating that Bill Clinton’s behavior toward women does matter, but Hillary’s behavior matters more. He scored big when he said that Hillary can’t be a champion of women’s rights. Also, she takes “money from regimes that treat women like cattle.” He was on point all night. Grade: A—
Retired Neurosurgeon Ben Carson — He as usual got lost in the shuffle, with large stretches of time going to other candidates. He started out very strong, addressing his lack of political experience in a brilliant way. “You don’t have to be a politician to tell the truth.” He then showed his inner mettle. “I’ve had more 2 a.m. phone calls than everybody here put together dealing with life and death issues.” He wasted his closing statement, repeating the Founding Fathers rather than making a compelling case for himself. Grade: B
Florida Sen. Marco Rubio — He usually shines in debates, but this was his roughest performance. He still got in several great lines, but he lost his exchanges with Jeb Bush and Rand Paul. He was hammered on the immigration issue. Even the best are allowed an off night, and tonight was his off night. Having it come right before the Iowa caucus is not ideal, but he has plenty of time to recover before New Hampshire. He most likely did not hurt himself in this debate. Grade: B—
Texas Sen. Ted Cruz — Rubio and Cruz were interchangeable. The debate rock stars got rocked. Cruz started out brilliantly, poking fun at Donald Trump with a hilarious opening statement. He called his fellow Republican debaters stupid, dumb and ugly, before turning to Ben Carson and calling him a lousy surgeon. Everybody laughed. “Now that the Trump part of the evening is out of the way, now let’s get down to business.” Yet he got into a needless conflict with Chris Wallace, and then had a moment that was either fantastic or terrible depending on perception.
He told Megan Kelly that he was so frustrated with all the attacks coming at him, that if he was asked one more hostile question he would walk off the stage. Cruz supporters after the debate said he was joking, that it was more mocking of Trump. Yet he seemed serious, which would make this his first debate blunder. It allowed Rubio to generate laughs when Rubio said he would stay no matter what he was asked. Cruz is very funny, but he was not smiling when he said this. It seemed to be a gaffe. Adding the fact that he struggled during the immigration skirmishes made for a tough night. Grade: B—
Ohio Gov. John Kasich — He just cannot stop himself. Try and remember one time when Kasich answered a question in the allotted time. He is like the guy who insists that the red light was yellow. When that fails, he says it is orange. When asked a serious question about military technology, Kasich said it is best not to talk about it. Megan Kelly said it was public information and Kasich again suggested otherwise. Showing up but refusing to answer questions is only one step above not showing up at all. On the Iran deal, he sounded like a liberal. Rather than promise to rip up the deal on day one, he said “We don’t know what’s going to happen on day one.” He even said that “If they the violate agreement, we slap back on sanctions.” They already have violated the agreement. He then spoke of mulit-lateralism, which no Republican should do. He is a terrible debater. There is no way around it. Grade: C—
Businessman Donald Trump — When you skip class, you flunk. Trump has done everything right strategically since the moment he entered the race. Skipping this debate was his first mistake. Yes, he raised millions of dollars for wounded veterans. Yes, he had a fantastic crowd at his event. Those are his supporters. Undecided Iowa voters wanted to see the debate. The debate went on just fine without him, and some commentators said that it was more substantive without him. If he does not win the Iowa Caucus, skipping this debate will be a major reason why. Trump said that he skipped the debate due to his feud with Megyn Kelly. His reason is irrelevant. He is frequently impressive when he shows up. Showing up is the right thing to do. Even billionaires make mistakes.
Bret Baier: He was cool, calm, and unflappable. He was the only moderator who did not get into loud arguments with the candidates. He did his job superbly. Grade: A
Chris Wallace: He is usually the gold standard for moderators, but like some of the candidates, he had an off night. He was proper with how he handled Ted Cruz, but his question about mistakes George W. Bush made in two wars seemed slanted. Bringing up Bridgegate to Chris Christie was not necessary. B—
Megyn Kelly: She is yet the umpteenth example of a rock star having a bad night. She is the consummate professional. Like Wallace, she was magnificent in the last debate. Criticism of her in that debate was baseless. This time she asked some questions that would be worthy of outrage if anyone less professional than she asked them. Asking if the GOP has stoked the flames of anti-Muslim bias was a democrat talking point. She asked Jeb Bush about his low polls and whether his attack ads were hurting the GOP. That was a process question, and she usually sticks to policy. Like the best debaters, she has been so good for so long that the inevitable bad night had to occur at some point. She will bounce back. Grade: C