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Presidential Horse Race 2016: ABC Republican debate: The beginning of repetitious Rubio’s precipitous decline

If you’ve somehow been isolated from news of the Republican presidential race to this point and suddenly awakened just now -- a couple days before the New Hampshire primary -- you would probably figure there’s a lot of excitement still in the air but much of the tension is gone.

If this scenario describes you – you’re wrong.

ABC Republican debateAny presidential campaign that contains Donald Trump and a collection of semi-desperate establishment candidates is going to offer plenty of drama. And much of that fuss was on display Saturday night in New Hampshire (in Manchester at Saint Anselm College's New Hampshire Institute of Politics).

With this event coming five days after the Iowa Caucuses and just nine days since the last Republican debate in Des Moines on January 28, you had to wonder if anything new could possibly be done or said that hasn’t been done or said yet in this nearly year-long campaign.

The answer came fairly early in the first segment when Chris Christie forced golden boy Marco Rubio to repeat his standard talking points an astonishing three times (at least) – even as Christie was pointing it out to him and the audience!

Watching Rubio garble his responses was almost as painful as seeing Rick Perry temporarily brain-freeze on which federal agencies he would eliminate during a debate four years ago. Perry’s debate snafu effectively ended his campaign. Will the same happen to Rubio?

More on Rubio’s foibles later.

A few things were different from the start of the ABC debate. Rand Paul is no longer campaigning, so that left Ted Cruz as the sole choice remaining for “outsiders” who want a real conservative candidate. Ben Carson used to be seen in this light, though he’s faded dramatically since last November’s Paris terrorist attacks and doesn’t appear to be a serious candidate at this stage, despite national polling numbers that keep him in fourth place.

Carson was largely invisible for most of the ABC debate, which he was happy to point out whenever he did get a chance to speak. On those occasions, he was his typical very good, honest self – especially towards the end when the retired neurosurgeon discussed quarantines and the Zika virus.

Of course, Cruz has been taking heat all week from Carson over the Iowa email non-controversy leftover from last Monday’s Iowa caucuses, so I wondered whether everyone would see fit to pile on… (In case you haven’t heard about it, I covered it extensively in Friday’s blog.)

In a campaign season full of non-issues, the Carson/Cruz email kerfuffle has to be one of the most prominently ridiculous. It seems clear to me that in repeatedly bringing it up, Carson is looking for a way to grab at something that might give him another chance in the race. It’s only unfortunate that he chose this matter to try and get back in the conversation.

A shame, indeed.

Sure enough, the moderators asked Cruz about it within the first five minutes of Saturday night’s debate. Cruz laid out the timeline and apologized directly to Carson, looking him straight in the eye. A great moment for Ted. Carson proceeded to say he wasn’t going to take the opportunity to damage the reputation of Cruz – and then went on to dis “Washington ethics” which clearly was referring to Ted.

And that was pretty much it for this topic. So much for all the attention it’s been getting in the always distracted mainstream press. The discussion then shifted to the main point of contention for the evening, the battle for the establishment lead in New Hampshire.

Going into the debate, one question left unanswered was whether the establishment group (Marco Rubio, Jeb Bush, John Kasich and Chris Christie) would spend more time attacking each other or turn their attention on poll leader Donald Trump – or even lambast Ted Cruz instead.

Christie went after Rubio early, the key moment in the debate. Bush took on Trump over eminent domain about a third of the way through, but everyone else left the billionaire celebrity alone. Bush also took mild swipes at Rubio from time to time but the damage had already been done by Christie.

And John Kasich again took the high road. If that’s what “mainstream” Republicans want, they’ve probably found their guy.

ABC does a few things differently

One other thing that was new about Saturday night’s debate was having ABC host it (moderated by ABC’s David Muir and Martha Raddatz. Local WMUR anchor Josh McElveen also contributed questions, as did conservative writer Mary Katharine Ham). Up until this point, every debate has been run either by Fox News (two), Fox Business Channel (two), CNN (two) or CNBC (one and that was enough).

Noticeably absent was ABC personality George Stephanopoulos (though he did appear in the “pregame show” and during commercial breaks), who got into a tussle with Mitt Romney in 2012 over birth control. Nobody missed him.

The debate itself didn’t start until about 8:20, which was annoying. If you were watching, I’m sure you got a good laugh as I did as the candidate introductions were badly botched. Just seeing the facial expressions of the candidates who thought they were passed over was priceless.

Once the program got started, thankfully the moderators mostly stuck to the issues after giving Carson his chance to re-air his grievances regarding the Iowa voting. It should be noted that Carson actually over-performed his pre-Caucus polling in Iowa, so I’m still not quite sure what all the controversy is about. It’s not like he would’ve challenged for the win in the Hawkeye State – and he did end up with three delegates. As of now, he’s only five behind the leader Ted Cruz.

Like all the other hissy fits in this campaign to date, this too will pass.

Saturday night’s debate was mostly inconsequential except for the damage done to Marco Rubio. Ted Cruz held his own while probably enjoying a pass from the relentless attacks that have been plaguing him of late. Donald Trump was also invisible for good portions of the evening. I didn’t think that was possible prior to this debate.

The only thing we’re left to wonder about is how much Rubio’s canned talking points will hurt him. If people watched the debate, I’m guessing a lot.

Carly Fiorina was barred at the door, but will it actually end up helping her?

Strangely enough, for as important as this debate would appear, it was probably just as beneficial for the one candidate who wasn’t there as it was for the participants themselves.

No, it’s not Donald Trump. He actually showed up this time.

Carly Fiorina was the only candidate missing from Saturday night’s debate line-up and she’ll certainly get more positive news coverage for not taking part than she likely would have if she’d been standing next to the other competitors.

Excluding Fiorina made ABC – and the Republican National Committee – look bad from the outset. With the field narrowed to eight major candidates, there was no real reason to exclude her – after all, she beat, albeit narrowly, two of the candidates who were there (John Kasich and Chris Christie) and she was within one percentage point of another (Jeb Bush).

Naturally, she wasn’t too fond of ABC’s hardline stance against her.

Only 30 delegates have been awarded thus far in the Republican race and there’s a LONG way to go. Who’s to say as the field narrows further in the coming weeks that she couldn’t pick up where others falter?

It may be a bit of a long shot, but it’s conceivable she could gain ground as an establishment candidate. Her foreign policy views certainly fall in line with the neoconservative wing of the party and she’s come out as a strong party supporter in the past, especially in opposing the 2013 government shutdown and standing behind Republican congressional leaders in the process. She’s already known for attacking Ted Cruz as being too principled and not practical enough – isn’t that exactly what they’re looking for?

Sure, Carly’s based her campaign on a “politics is broken” theme but has largely avoided directly criticizing Republicans as part of what’s “broken.” She’s become well known for her pointed barbs at Hillary Clinton, just the right fit for the party brass who wants the election to be about Hillary rather than their own failings.

As the establishment might be rallying to Marco Rubio as their chosen candidate, he will undergo a more serious vetting than he has thus far. Who’s to say when the bright light of truth is shined on the Florida senator that he won’t be exposed as a good-looking but shallow empty suit?

Much of that was on display Saturday night with Rubio’s ugly repeated talking point moment with Christie. He might not last…you never know.

If that’s the case, the elites will be looking for a replacement. We all know it won’t be Jeb Bush. John Kasich and Chris Christie will likely be out by the time the race narrows to winner-take-all states. Fiorina has vowed to remain in the race indefinitely – and by the looks of it, there’s no reason she can’t at least keep her hat in the ring.

In other words, there is an open “lane” down the line if the cards fall in the right way. Keeping Fiorina out of this debate was unwarranted, unnecessary and wrong.

And she just might benefit when enough people realize it.

Get the ring ready, the establishment appears ready to propose

As if we didn’t know it already, the establishment has made its choice. They want golden boy Marco Rubio to be their man – and they’re telling their former guy, Jeb Bush, to treat him well for the sake of the family.

Alexander Bolton of The Hill reports, “An all-out assault on Sen. Marco Rubio by groups aligned with former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush is angering GOP senators (Orrin Hatch, Pat Roberts and Dan Coats), who fear it could hurt the party’s chances of capturing the White House.

“Right to Rise, a pro-Bush super PAC, has spent an estimated $20 million against Rubio. It is expected to launch a new ad this weekend featuring a clip of former Sen. Rick Santorum (R-Pa.), who endorsed Rubio Tuesday, fumbling to name one of his accomplishments.”

In the article, of course all of these senators named the establishment candidates as the best general election alternatives, despite the fact all of them combined can’t match Trump and Cruz’s poll support. It’s actually not even close.

How the establishment is so convinced on Rubio’s electability defies logic, since these are the same people who were so positive that John McCain was more electable than Mike Huckabee in 2008 and Mitt Romney had a better chance than Rick Santorum or Newt Gingrich in 2012. In the case of Santorum, maybe they were right. He’s an idiot.

Getting back to 2016, Marco Rubio severely damaged his campaign on Saturday night. While he had a good second half of the debate, his back-and-forth with Chris Christie is what everyone will be talking about for the next few days.

And New Hampshire votes on Tuesday.

Rubio could potentially overcome these huge gaffes by a smothering ground game, but there’s no indication he has one – either in New Hampshire or in South Carolina.

He’ll have to go back to the drawing board to develop a new “25-second response” to the charge that he’s not qualified to be president. But you can’t help but think Saturday night was a turning point in the establishment race.

Chris Christie set himself apart as a straight-shooting tough guy New Jersey governor. He may be full of it when talking about his conservative credentials, but the sharp tongued brawler that everyone appreciated several years ago when he was first elected was very much present on Saturday night.

Will it help him in New Hampshire? Maybe. But probably only a few points, perhaps at the expense of Rubio.

Meanwhile, after the program ended the pundits raved about how John Kasich had his best debate to date and I think they’re right. Kasich was effective in making the point about how he’d put in the time in New Hampshire to win the trust of the state’s voters and anyone who’s looking for a moderate candidate could easily see Kasich as the “electable” good guy in the race.

My eyes still glaze over whenever he speaks, but he generally left a positive impression.

Ditto for Jeb Bush. Jeb looks like a man who has nothing to lose and he’s a lot less careful these days, though his endless repetition of his “accomplishments” as governor of Florida ten years ago really don’t mean much now.

In another time, Bush could be an attractive alternative to the establishment people. But a pre-packaged professionally speaking politician isn’t what the voters want this year. It’s too late for Jeb – but he easily could still be useful in taking out Marco Rubio.

The establishment lane has a lot more room after Saturday night. Who will fill it?

Cruz quietly makes his points, shores up conservative support

In stark contrast to the previous debate, Ted Cruz stayed out of the fray and quietly went about making his points without being overly aggressive or complaining about his comparative lack of speaking time in this forum.

As an example of his effectiveness, Cruz was asked early on about how he would handle the active North Korean missile situation. He admitted that it would be presumptuous to say what he would do as Commander in Chief without a full intelligence briefing on the particulars.

This is the proper response to any “what would you do” hypothetical question, but most politicians would be more than happy to engage in chest-thumping bravado to claim they’d stare down the threat and all would be well.

But perhaps Cruz’s strongest debate moment may have been one that will generate the least amount of discussion. When asked about how he would address the heroin addiction issues in states like New Hampshire, Ted spent the bulk of his time talking about the problems of his older sister Miriam.

Miriam struggled for a long time and then lost her battle. It was heart-wrenching watching Ted describe the particulars.

Then he concluded his answer with how the federal government might help local governments with treatment programs and to cut off the drugs by sealing the southern border where they enter the country.

It was an extremely successful answer because Cruz was able to take a question which by its inference made him seem uncaring, but then personalized the subject and offered a quick, constitutionally based solution.

Ted may not have stood out in Saturday night’s event, but by avoiding being bruised by the others, he can count it as a good effort. I think he’ll do well on Tuesday, perhaps even taking a close second to Trump in New Hampshire.

Trump doesn’t understand eminent domain but loves the police

Donald Trump was his usual self during the ABC debate, which basically means his people will be even more sure he’s the greatest candidate in the field and his detractors will be bolstered in saying Trump’s only real selling point is “trust me, I’ll make deals.”

His exchange with Jeb Bush over eminent domain was telling – and was actually a great moment… for Jeb.

Trump correctly stated that eminent domain is important, but he failed miserably in distinguishing public versus private uses for land. He was correct in saying people are handsomely compensated if their property is taken, but could not refute Bush’s factually correct assertion that Trump was in favor of taking an old lady’s land to build a parking lot for his casino.

Eminent domain for roads – and things such as the Keystone pipeline – is arguably a justifiable taking of private property for the good of the public. Eminent domain to build private businesses that will merely “create jobs,” however, is stealing and unconstitutional.

Trump lost badly on that point and doesn’t even realize it, passing off the boos from the audience as coming from “donors” loyal to Bush and complaining about not getting enough tickets to the event.

Again, it’s Trump being Trump. But if he becomes president, it’s going to be four years of this whining and blaming someone other than himself…something to think about when going into the voting booth.

One thing that’s admirable about Trump is his steadfast and heartfelt defense of the police and veterans. When asked about the supposedly deteriorating nature of race relations due to police brutality, Trump didn’t hesitate in standing up for the police.

He could’ve taken the much easier politically correct road to give credence to the angry feelings of the Black Lives Matter movement, but kept the focus on supporting the police instead.

His words wouldn’t play well in a Democrat debate, but Republicans will love it.

Trump’s lead in national polls has shrunk in the past few days but he didn’t really do anything on Saturday night that would hurt him. His campaign will go on.

In two more days, we’ll know

Finally today, it’s always difficult to forecast how a single presidential debate might influence the overall race. Different people see different things and each candidate speaks to a specific audience.

But with that being said, there’s no telling how damaging Saturday night’s debate will end up being to Marco Rubio’s presidential aspirations. Rubio didn’t have a lot of substance to back up his already thin resume and Chris Christie’s effective attacks only further exposed the weak foundation of Marco’s run.

Having Rick Santorum endorse Rubio might be the worst thing that's happened to the Florida senator, since Santorum unwittingly introduced Rubio's faulty record into the equation. That's bad for Marco.

The establishment could very well split the New Hampshire vote four ways, leaving all of them in rough shape moving forward.

In that sense, Cruz and Trump were the clear winners of the ABC debate. We’ll know for sure one way or the other in just a couple more days.

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