This was a highly entertaining debate with intellectual and emotional depth.
I didn’t miss Rand Paul, with his sulky refusal to meld his libertarian instincts with the gravitas required for the role of commander in chief. I would have been interested to see Carly Fiorina’s considerable wit and seemingly eidetic memory on display for the big event, but I didn’t tune in to the undercard debate.
Here’s my brief rundown of the top 3
His best debate performance by far. The orange man is a quick study, and if he keeps improving at this rate, he might well become the Democrats’ worst nightmare on the debate stage. We heard less “CHINA!” this time around, and he moved the audience (and silenced Cruz) with his 9/11 anecdote about New York values. And with his vow to forget about his company in the interest of serving America, we saw emotional depth in this ubermensch. If the Donald’s mercantilistic trade tirades and hilarious braggadocio gave people reason to pause in former debates, his mental agility and sincerity now should not.
The stern, eloquent lecturer with a strangely feminine smile morphed into an alpha male tonight and, unlike Bush, took on Trump without looking like a disgruntled loser. The precision we’ve come to expect from Cruz was on display as he deftly dodged Trump’s opportunistic birther pounce. He emanated a new, almost lighthearted vigor – he seemed to really enjoy sparring with Trump. Was bromance in the air? If so, there’s no chance it lasts past tonight. His verbose exchanges with Rubio were far less interesting and the frontrunner stood idly by, riding his poll numbers while the two Senators isolated and disparaged each other.
Obama 2.0, conservative version? Despite his flaws, Rubio broke out of his schoolboy debater mold and came across as a mature contender tonight. He outshone and embarrassed Cruz with a perfectly delivered litany that included Cruz’s support for a bill to cut military spending. His biggest obstacle is that the majority of Republicans aren’t looking for a fresh-faced symbol of hope, and they’re opting for an anti-establishment force of nature in Trump. As a talented young guy and a well-versed Senator, Rubio may appear simultaneously too young and too old for the role. It remains to be seen whether this paradox prevents him from capturing the conservative imagination, and how long he can maintain his sparkly clean demeanor.