- - Thursday, December 17, 2015

ANALYSIS/OPINION:

When the debate stage went dark in Las Vegas the other night, the spinning continued. Every candidate claimed to have won. Some of the claims were more credible than others. With the first test in Iowa hard upon us, at last the game is on.

Each of the Republican debates has been followed by several days of grading, rating, deconstructing and comparing. The junkies as well as the candidates attempt to measure not just who won, but how, and whether what was said on the stage will make a difference in Iowa, New Hampshire and beyond.

The easy consensus is that like it or not, and many of the elite and conventional Republicans don’t like it at all, is that Donald Trump is still the front-runner. Marco Rubio or maybe Ted Cruz won the debate on points, and maybe the Floridian bested the Texan on immigration. By the middle of the week, however, the wise men (and some who only think they’re wise) were furiously reconsidering — maybe Mr. Cruz was too slick by half, and the words from Marco Rubio, like rock music, were better than they sound. Jeb Bush had his best debate yet but he still looked like a dead man walking. Rand Paul did pretty well for someone who shouldn’t have been on the main stage at all, and Chris Christie, with Jersey toughness and prosecutorial skills shining through, is revealed as the great might-have-been. Carly Fiorina, John Kasich and Ben Carson turned out to be yesterday’s news, wannabes who had their moment and are fading into the wallpaper. Everyone missed Mike Huckabee’s trenchant one-liners, if not his actual candidacy.

Interesting as such speculation may be, it misses the point. Republican voters are still moving from candidate to candidate, window-shopping, and will be until Iowa voters drag themselves through knee-deep snow to the caucuses next month and make the first statement that counts (even though the Iowa winners often have no staying power). Then comes New Hampshire, and things get real, and quickly.

The actual winner in Las Vegas was the Republican “brand,” as the slick-talking marketing men call it. The fear that the debates would shine a spotlight on a claque of clowns has dissipated. The candidates have gotten better, and emerge in the stretch as reasonable, intelligent candidates who can handle issues. Hillary Clinton won’t have the cakewalk some of the easily frightened Republicans imagined, with the assistance of the dishonest media, she would. Indicted or not, she would be vulnerable to any of these Republicans.

The first Republican debate drew 20 million viewers, an audience liberal pundits compared unfavorably to audiences drawn to NASCAR races in hopes of watching wrecks, or to be entertained by Donald Trump. Interest was supposed to wither and fade, but 18 million viewers sat through a real policy debate on Tuesday, and listened to a mature field of candidates describing how they would deal with the security crisis the country faces. They came across as a formidable bunch, nothing like the clowns the Democrats expected and wished for.

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