Whatever the voters of Iowa thought, I found the Trump-free debate last night the best one yet, less toxic and more substantive.
Some commentators may disagree, but I thought Trump's absence was dismissed quickly and with perfect pitch. Donald Trump did not dominate the debate in absentia, as he must have hoped to do. When moderator Megyn Kelly asked Senator Ted Cruz about the "elephant not in the room," here is how he responded:
"Let me say I'm a maniac and everyone on this stage is stupid, fat, and ugly. And Ben [Carson], you're a terrible surgeon. Now that we've gotten the Donald Trump portion out of the way."
It was funny. That is why it was effective: Cruz's attempt to recycle and adapt an attack on the moderators from an earlier debate to Trump's absence was less successful, but it gave Senator Marco Rubio, who had a great night, the exactly right moment to jump in and say, “First of all, don't worry, I'm not leaving the stage no matter what you ask me.”
So much for Trump on the main stage last night.
However, I will say one more thing about him. In the absence of his tormentor, Jeb Bush had a good night. John Podhoretz, who dubs Trump Gozer the Destructor (a villain in "Ghostbusters"), notes:
The key beneficiary [of Trump's absence] was Jeb Bush, who had his best night — which isn’t surprising, since he didn’t have a loudmouth needler tossing insults at his poll numbers and calling him “low-energy.”
If you want to know how lucky Bush was, consider this horrific what-might-have-been moment had Trump been present.
Gozer would surely have taunted Jeb, as he did for a few days last week, for having his “mommy” campaign for him.
Podhoretz predicts that the respite from Trump will be brief.
Immigration, the issue that has more than any other propelled Trump into the frontrunner position, was a hot topic last night. Fox played clips of both Rubio and Cruz making statements that are contrary to their current positions. Perhaps using what John Podhoretz calls Rubio's "surreal fluency," Rubio avoided addressing his changes and instead made a rousing call to close the border.
I agree with Jim Geraghty:
I cannot believe Rubio doesn’t just say, “yeah, I’ve rethought the issue, and concluded the path to citizenship is a bad idea” instead of trying to insist he really said “blanket amnesty,” and meant something different. Still, for what it’s worth, Frank Luntz said his focus group loved Rubio’s answers. To political junkies like us, “I’m not going to use unconstitutional executive orders like Barack Obama” sounds like a dodge because it’s about process, not the ultimate fate of illegal immigrants – but to ordinary voters, it seems common-sense and decent. Rubio’s bad nights are still better than most candidates’ good nights.Rubio also got in what Katie Pavlich calls the "most terrifying line of the night:"
“Hillary wants to put Barack Obama on the Supreme Court.”
And kudos to Cruz who had the courage to be against ethanol subsidies in the state of Iowa.
I haven't seen anything on last night's ratings. I feel certain they are down and that Trump will crow about this. But the debate itself was more of a political debate for candidates running for the presidency than a reality show. So it would be expected that the ratings might be lower.
Trump remains the frontrunner. We'll know soon enough. But, if Trump doesn't win Iowa, I'm predicting that something that makes Howard Dean's primal scream look subdued by comparison could very well occur.