4 Moments You Should Know From the Republican Debate

January 29th 2016

Mike Vainisi

It was a strange night in Iowa on Thursday. With the pivotal Iowa Caucus looming on Monday, Donald Trump, the frontrunner in the race for the Republican presidential nomination, boycotted his party's debate due to his feud with Fox News, the network that hosted last night's event. His main problem, he says, is with Fox News host and debate moderator, Megyn Kelly. The result was that Trump was a few miles away holding his own event while the rest of his GOP rivals were on the debate stage.

So what happened last night?

1. Trump won


No, Trump's rival event did not have higher ratings than the Republican debate on Fox. And yes, Trump rambled and was all over the place during his speech.

But Trump's risky decision to boycott the debate looks pretty good this morning. For one, he — the "elephant not in the room" as Kelly said — was the subject of the debate's first question, and his rivals consistently brought him up throughout the night. Secondly, his chief rival to win the Iowa Caucus, Ted Cruz, stumbled last night (more on that later) and the candidate running third behind Trump, Marco Rubio, did not looks so good either. In fact, both Rubio and Cruz were scorched for their positions on immigration, an issue that's great for Trump with conservative voters.

If anything, Trump's position in Iowa looks stronger after the debate (even though the jury is still out on whether Iowa Trump supporters really will show up to caucus on Monday).

Missing the debate surely did not hurt Trump's media coverage. According to Curtis Houck at Newsbusters, the network news shows last night spent about 10 minutes on Trump and less than two minutes on the debate. And after the debate, ABC's Nightline devoted half of its election coverage to Trump.

The first question of the debate was about Trump, and Cruz used it to mock Trump's habit of personally insulting his opponents.

"Now, secondly, let me say I'm a maniac and everyone on this stage is stupid, fat, and ugly. And Ben, you're a terrible surgeon," Cruz joked.

2. Fox News went after Ted Cruz

Ted Cruz answers attacks

After letting him open the debate with a shot at Trump's absence, the Fox moderators turned on Ted Cruz, allowing the other candidates to grill him on immigration, NSA reform, and foreign policy.

Cruz did not respond well. Instead of his usual poise on the debate podium, he started to complain about the questions.

"Chris, I would note that the last four questions have been 'Rand, please attack Ted,' 'Marco, please attack Ted,' 'Chris please attack Ted,' 'Jeb, please attack Ted,'" Cruz said. While this line may have been a setup for a joke about Trump (Cruz followed up by joking that these "mean" questions would cause him to leave the stage), it did not land well and received boos.

You can watch it for yourself here:


Cruz' toughest moment of the night came on immigration when Fox tried to undermine a key talking point of Cruz's campaign. From the beginning, Cruz has portrayed his rivals, particularly Rubio, as weak on immigration, and Fox tried to call out Cruz as a hypocrite on this issue, playing a montage of old clips of Cruz stating that he supported legalization of undocumented workers, just not U.S. citizenship for them. This position is closer to Rubio than Cruz portrays it, and it's surely not as far to the right as Trump, who has campaigned for deportation of undocumented workers.

Cruz's response to this attack is not that great — it's basically, "Trust me. I didn't mean it."

You can see his whole answer here:

3. Jeb Bush might have had his best moment in any debate

Jeb on Marco Rubio

It's not an overstatement to say that onetime frontrunner Jeb Bush has performed terribly in the debates, particularly against Trump, who has bulldozed Bush night-in, night-out.

But last night, a jab against Rubio really resonated. A few months ago, Bush tried to go after Rubio, and he failed miserably. Last night, though, Bush ably called out Rubio's hypocrisy on immigration, an issue that's been the bane of both Bush and Rubio in this campaign. Indeed, both candidates used to support liberalized immigration policy, especially toward undocumented workers. This is no longer a popular stance in the age of Trump. In response, Rubio has tried to distance himself from his past flirtations with legalizing these workers, but Bush made him pay last night.

"He led the charge to finally fix this immigration problem that has existed now for, as Marco says, for 30 years. And then he cut and run because it wasn't popular amongst conservatives, I guess," Bush said.

Rubio's answer on this is pretty lame and always changing. Sometimes he says that times have changed, and that his immigration stance was a merely a response to more liberal plans that existed at that time. He's also basically said "Hey, times have changed. ISIS exists now, and we must secure the border."

But this does not change reality: At one time, Rubio was one of the leading voices in the country for creating a pathway to citizenship for undocumented workers.

Jeb did not let him forget that either. When Rubio accused Jeb of supporting a pathway to citizenship, Jeb shot back with "So did you. So did you, Marco," a line that generated applause in the debate hall.

Marco Rubio vs. Jeb Bush

Marco Rubio vs. Jeb Bush

You can watch this exchange here:

4. Rand Paul had a good night, and he reminded us of what might have been.

Rand Paul on criminal justice reform

Rand Paul looked good, and he reminded everyone why he was considered the most interesting candidate in the field at this time last year. He had great answers on criminal justice reform and the failure of the drug war. And one couldn't help but feel a little nostalgic when Paul mentioned his desire to "audit the fed," a pet idea of his father, Ron Paul, whose grass roots support for president in 2008 and 2012 was based on unorthodox, libertarian positions.

Yes, Paul was supposed to be playing the Trump role in this race, scaring the Republican elites silly by threatening to snatch the nomination from more typical conservative candidates. The idea was that Paul would build on his father's libertarian movement by bringing together a new coalition of Republicans around issues such as the national debt, NSA surveillance, criminal justice reform, and monetary policy.

And last night, you could imagine that alternate universe where it's Rand Paul, not Donald Trump, playing the role of populist outsider.

Rand Paul on fines

Instead, Paul's campaign never really got out of the starting blocks. While many have criticized Paul for moving too close to the Republican mainstream and compromising the pure libertarianism of his father's movement (but never put his father anywhere close to winning the Republican nomination), it's probably more accurate to say that Paul backers misjudged the base of the Republican Party. Yes, the Paul family's brand of conservatism is popular with young, libertarian-leaning Republicans. But those voters do not make up enough of the Republican base. Trump's popularity proves it. The populist side of the Republican Party is still more concerned with immigration, China, and the decline of the white majority in America than they are with privacy rights and mass incarceration.

The good news for Paul? Maybe a day will come when young people who care about those issues will have a greater share of the Republican Party.

You can watch the rest of his answer on the failure of the War on Drugs here: