Thursday night in Des Moines, IA, Republicans held their final debate before the first delegates are selected in the GOP presidential campaign. The first thing that stood out about the debate was how substantive and adult the debate was without Donald Trump on stage. The quality of the debate improved dramatically. Another thing that stood out was how presidential and informed Marco Rubio looked. Based on the Frank Luntz/Fox News focus group results, Marco Rubio won the debate. At the start of the night, 3 of the 27 people in Luntz’s focus group said that they were going to caucus for Sen. Rubio. After the debate, 8 of the 27 people in Mr. Luntz’s focus group announced that they intend to caucus for Sen. Rubio.
Even more impressive is the fact that 23 of the 27 people said that Sen. Rubio won the debate. That isn’t to say that Sen. Rubio didn’t encounter some rough spots. He staggered momentarily when asked about immigration. Still, as NRO’s Jim Geraghty eloquently stated in this article, “Rubio’s bad nights are still better than most candidates’ good nights.”
Sen. Rubio’s feathers definitely got ruffled when asked about immigration. Initially, he stumbled. The good news for the Rubio campaign is that he recovered quickly as he firmly stated that we weren’t going to deport 12,000,000 illegal aliens. He mixed it up with Gov. Bush, though, saying emphatically that there never would be consensus to pass a comprehensive immigration bill. When Sen. Rubio said that we’d have to enforce existing laws before starting the discussion about what to do with those here illegally, he put himself back on firm footing.
Trump not being there impacted Sen. Cruz, who took most of the incoming from the other candidates. He had a funny response to the opening question, which was “about the elephant that’s not in the room,” aka Donald Trump. After the applause for his humorous answer, though, he got booed when he attacked Sen. Rubio. The crowd in the debate hall definitely reacted negatively to that. That’s because the audience wanted the candidates to turn their guns on Barack Obama and Mrs. Clinton.
The thing that helped shape opinions was the audience’s applause when the candidates took the fight to Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama. That was especially true for 2 of Sen. Rubio’s replies. The audience applauded when Sen. Rubio rejected the notion of Hillary Clinton appointing President Obama to the US Supreme Court. The other applause Sen. Rubio got was when he said that Hillary would have to pardon herself if she got elected.
Iowans don’t caucus until Monday evening. As happens each cycle, some surprises will happen. At this point, based on this week’s polling, the biggest surprise would be either Sen. Cruz winning or Sen. Rubio finishing second. At this point, both things seem quite possible.
Buckle up, folks. It’s gonna be a fun weekend for political junkies.