The Republican candidates for president took the stage for their latest debate Saturday night in Manchester, New Hampshire, just three days before the second contest of the 2016 nominating contest - the New Hampshire primary.
Donald Trump leads the state by a wide margin, while a cluster of GOP candidates are fighting for second place. And much of the action Thursday was among the latter.
• Donald Trump: Trump is leading the polls in New Hampshire. You wouldn't know it by Saturday night's debate. Trump basically sunk into the background, with almost nobody going after him. It was as if all the candidates were conceding the state to him. The one time someone really got Trump worked up was when Jeb Bush lodged an eminent domain attack. Eventually, the crowd booed Trump. Trump accused the crowd of being stacked with GOP establishment types and donors - not his people. Whether that was true or not, something tells me his base of support believed it.
But that was really about it. At one point, Marco Rubio got a softball when he was asked whether Trump was a conservative. In his answer, Rubio didn't mention Trump once. Given Rubio is perhaps the one guy who could beat Trump on Tuesday, that was striking. And then there's the fact that Rubio didn't have a great night (more on that later). The combination of those two things couldn't have been better for Trump.
• Ted Cruz: Speaking of front-runners, Cruz just won Iowa and has a very strong path to the GOP nomination starting in South Carolina on Feb. 20. But given he's not expected to do well in New Hampshire, basically everyone gave him a pass
Thursday. He was even more untouched than Trump; not even his regular immigration bouts with Rubio were rehashed. That will change ahead of South Carolina, of course. Cruz, like Trump, did have at least one not-great moment, when he lost his train of thought on one answer on waterboarding, but he recovered rather quickly.
And toward the end of the debate, Cruz - voice quavering - talked about his half-sister's drug and alcohol addiction and resulting death. It was touching. It was memorable. It was what people will remember Cruz for in this debate.
• The Trump-Cruz bromance: Not only did these two not take much incoming fire; they even shared a moment that reminded us of a time they both got along, as Cruz suggested he would build a border wall and that he'd put Trump in charge of it. Make no mistake: This was an olive branch. We'll see if Trump takes it when the two are actually competing for the same state again.
• Chris Christie: He sure got his voice heard going after Rubio - which we'll recap below (see: LOSERS). The question, though, is did Christie help himself, or just hurt Rubio? He doesn't have much of a pulse in this race - even in New Hampshire, which is vital to his path to victory. It's clear Christie was trying to seize the establishment mantle from Rubio; I'm just not sure what he did that will make people like Christie more.
• ABC's video introduction: OK, so doing this in a way that is both serious and entertaining is a tough thing to do. Oftentimes, the cable news networks err too much on the side of entertaining, making movie-trailer-esque intros for their debates, complete with the "In a World"-style narration and lots of war metaphors. ABC and its co-host, the Independent Journal Review - which has been producing entertaining videos of the GOP candidates for months now - took a different tack, focusing on the candidates' debate preparation tactics. It was good ...
• ABC's candidate introductions: Is nobody telling these candidates when to come on stage!?
• Marco Rubio: Where to start here? Rubio has been such a strong debater so far - and a steady hand on the campaign trail in general. And then he ran into Christie. The New Jersey governor hit Rubio for never having been a chief executive and for not having much to show for his time in the Senate. He seemed to knock Rubio off his game so much that Rubio wound up repeating a stock answer about President Obama - that Obama knows exactly what he's doing in driving the country to the left - three times. It was conspicuous and very not-smooth. Then Christie smelled blood and pounced, hitting Rubio for not being able to venture beyond his talking points - or his "25-second speech," as Christie called it. It became hard to watch. Rubio finished in third place in Iowa, but he was seen as the momentum candidate coming into New Hampshire. He got the front-runner's treatment, and it wasn't good. We'll see if it hurts his poll numbers.
(Side note: Rubio was MUCH better in the second half of the debate - recalling how he's performed in previous debates. But we're still guessing there will be more focus on Christie's brutal attacks.)
• Ben Carson's foreign policy talking points: When Carson was asked a question about Obamacare, he lamented the fact that he had not been included in an earlier back-and-forth over North Korea. It was so transparent. Carson has struggled because he has almost no foreign policy acumen, and he was trying to say he wanted to talk about this stuff now! Later, when talking about the Middle East, Carson said, "None of us on this stage are foreign policy experts. Some of us might think we are. But we're not." That may be true. But some on stage clearly have more expertise than others, and Carson struggles every time he gets a question on this stuff. He should probably be thankful he wasn't included in the North Korea debate.
• Debate start times: Did you know what time the debate started? I didn't. ABC used the old "coverage begins at" trick to get people to tune in early, without actually saying when the debate would start. They said coverage would begin at 8 p.m., and the debate started shortly thereafter. Just tell us when the debate starts. You are a media outlet that is supposed to be focused on disseminating the truth. When you obscure the start time like this, it's dishonest.
• ABC's moderator questions: Later on, the debate moved to issues of race, torture, ransom for terrorists who are holding Americans, women serving in combat and other issues that haven't really been on the radar so far this campaign season. The answers were sometimes less-than-enlightening, but it's good to ask the candidates about things they might not have prepared for and are a little off-the-beaten-path. And all of those issues are big. More of that in the future.