There were certainly some fireworks at last night’s GOP debate. In the preliminary round, the attacks were levied mainly at the Obama Administration and the presumptive Democratic nominee, Hillary Clinton. These themes also came up in the prime time debate, but the leading candidates spent a bit more time sparring with one another, largely ignoring the others on stage.
Here’s a quick recap of the major lines of argument from last night.
Cruz and Paul vs. Rubio
Rand Paul and Ted Cruz both took aim at their colleague in the Senate, Marco Rubio. Cruz and Rubio went back and forth on national security and immigration, which Rubio accusing Cruz of supporting legislation that hinders the federal government’s ability to gather information, and Cruz calling out Rubio for initially supporting “path-to-citizenship” immigration reform. Paul, meanwhile, piled on Rubio as “the weakest of all the candidates on immigration.” Rubio tried to distinguish himself from the isolationist, libertarian-leaning foreign policy positions of Cruz and Paul.
While the senators clashed, Christ Christie—who is a governor and former federal prosecutor—humorously took jabs at them collectively, saying that the American people didn’t care about the time they wasted debating bills in the chamber. He also highlighted their lack of executive experience, a point that Carly Fiorina reiterated. However, when Christie showed how he would be a stronger executive, Paul retorted: “If you are in favor of World War III, you have your candidate.”
By and large, however, the rest of the field ignored Paul’s attacks and zeroed in on a single opponent. This left little room for Ben Carson to jump into the action, a point the retired neurosurgeon did not fail to bring up when he finally did get to speak.
Trump vs. Jeb
The ongoing fued between Donald Trump (the most outsider candidate) and Jeb Bush (the most establishment candidate) did not abate, as the two men spent much of their speaking time attacking one another. Bush consistently characterized Trump as unserious and chaotic, portraying himself as a better leader. After a series of verbal barbs, Trump essentially played his “trump card,” pointing out how far ahead in the polls he was.
“You’re not going to be able to insult your way to the presidency,” Bush warned.
Somewhat surprisingly, however, Trump did include a promise to run only as a Republican in his closing remarks, perhaps reassuring those who felt that his potential to run as an independent—and surely take away votes from the Republican nominee, handing Hillary Clinton the presidency—would only harm the GOP’s chances in November.
Focus on Terrorism
Despite their many disagreements, a clear consensus among the candidates about keeping America safe emerged as the focus of the debate. This was also the theme of the preliminary “undercard” debate, where the other four candidates (especially South Carolina senator Lindsey Graham) touted their foreign policy and national security credentials. The candidates did offer different paths on how to best handle threats to our security, but the emphasis on the topic reflected that this is currently the most important issue for American voters following the Islamic terror attacks on Paris and then San Bernadino, California.
One strange theme that was talked about after the debates is the notion of different “lanes” in the Republican Party. Pundits have ranged from claiming there are at least two lanes (an “outsider lane” and “establishment lane”) to expanding the lanes to four or more. While this concept may provide some heuristic for seeing how different candidates stake out their policy positions, it does little besides divide the candidates (and the electorate) into overly generalized categories. Bloomberg poked fun at the idea, extending it to all the other also-rans:
“Nobody’s mentioning the breakdown lane, where Bobby Jindal is helping [Scott] Walker tend to four flat tires. They only recently were passed by George Pataki and Lindsey Graham, each driving 40 in a 65-mph zone yet inexplicably bypassing each exit.”