The fifth Republican presidential debate Tuesday night displayed the undeniable impact of the Paris and San Bernardino attacks, with a heavy focus on terrorism that played to the strengths of a handful of candidates. And the Las Vegas venue produced some clear winners before Americans ease into the holiday celebrations.
Marco Rubio: The Florida senator has been one of the most consistent debaters throughout the early election season, conveying clear convictions, a common-sense-sounding policy framework and an optimism that America’s seemingly intractable problems can still be solved. He aired confidence Tuesday night without Trump’s braggadocio, showcased a likeability that emanates from his personal story and avoided the Senate speak that afflicted others on stage.
Ted Cruz: He was the most relentless counter-puncher, scoring points with a passion and black-and-white diagnoses of issues that appeal to evangelicals and others in the conservative wing of the party.
Donald Trump: In a city that values entertainment, the billionaire delivered another Main Act performance. On the skills of debating, he ranks below others on the stage. But he has knows what drives his substantial bloc of support: a take-no-hostages, make-no-apologies, double-down style that rails against the political ruling class, answers challenges with insults and reducing every solution to a declaration, “I can do it.” His humorous embrace of Mr. Cruz near the end of the debate was the classic showman at work.
Lindsey Graham: The South Carolina senator was hands down the dominant winner of the undercard debate. His communication skills, honed by years of frequent TV talk-show appearances, dwarfed the rest of the field in the consolation debate. And his three decades in the Air Force and Air Force Reserves allowed him to dominate the discussion on fighting terrorism and rebuilding the U.S. military.
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HELD THEIR OWN
Chris Christie: His New Jersey schtick may be getting a bit old, but this debate played to his strengths as a former federal prosecutor after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks. And he scored some effective points when he counterpunched after Mr. Rubio and Mr. Cruz got bogged down in a debate on Senate legislative minutiae that most Americans never heard of. He also provided the most pointed attack on President Obama, calling the man he once hugged after Superstorm Sandy as a “feckless weakling.”
Rand Paul: The Kentucky senator scored some points against several onstage in his most assertive performance to date, but at times he seemed evasive or circular in reasoning when the debate moderators tried to pin him down on his own positions or his differences with parts of the GOP debate.
Ben Carson: He was more confident and explicit in discussing his foreign policy positions — a challenge where he has struggled in the past — while retaining the likeability that’s at the core of his popularity.
Jeb Bush: He gave a more assertive performance than prior debates and has a White House-worthy resume but still comes off like the middle daughter Jan from “The Brady Bunch” — always complaining about everything “Donald, Donald, Donald.”
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Carly Fiorina: She seemed flat, and grumpy and indignant onstage. And her repeated efforts to inject herself into the debate with her screed “This is what is wrong in Washington” didn’t prove effective.
John Kasich: The Ohio governor has a record of success in Ohio but he comes off on the national stage more like a dour college professor lecturing students than a presidential contender with an optimistic vision for America.