A Fight-By-Fight Guide To The Last 2015 GOP Debate

Two fights in the last #GOPdebate summed up the whole race

Three Amigos. — (REUTERS)
Dec 15, 2015 at 11:49 PM ET

It was a night all about attacks. At Tuesday’s debate, Republican candidates talked about attacking ISIS, attacking Obama, attacking Hillary Clinton, and attacking the internet (that was Trump, mostly). So much so that, for a time, they largely held off attacking each other. Perhaps they’ve learned that when they go after each other, their opponents just get more air time.

Of course, the moderators of Tuesday’s debate in Las Vegas wanted a good brawl, ideally with Donald Trump at the center of it. An all-way rumble would have been even better, an iron-clad guarantee of great ratings, and so the CNN hosts attempted to lead the candidates into head-to-head exchanges as often as possible. Two of their successes, and one which failed to materialize, served as the perfect metaphors for the entire campaign to date.

Jeb Bush took the bait early on, attempting to attack the frontrunner. “Donald Trump is great at the one-liners, but he is a chaos candidate,” said Bush, a good one-liner in itself. Later, Bush again challenged Trump on his willingness to attack and potentially kill the families of terrorists, saying it showed a “lack of seriousness,” and then saying Trump couldn’t “insult his way to the White House,” in maybe his best line of the night.

But each time Bush attacked, Trump dismissively steamrolled him, in a series of schoolyard to-and-fros. At one point, they went back and forth for a solid three minutes without anyone else getting a word in. And while Bush might have made his tough guy voice heard, it didn’t play well.

Trump looked even stronger when, midway through the debate, he called out the moderators for leading the other candidates into attacking him. Again after the debate, he highlighted to CNN host Chris Cuomo how Bush in particular had been goaded into going after Trump. “They were leading him,” said Trump, “like ‘C’mon, let’s fight with Trump, let’s fight with Trump’. Every question was like a lead.” Poor Jeb, he seemed to suggest, guy didn’t stand a chance.

The most significant and substantial head-to-head, however, was the repeated Cruz vs. Rubio face-off. Host Wolf Blitzer asked Rubio why he’d been critical of Cruz’s strategy against ISIS, and started a confrontation that would reappear throughout the entire debate. The pair sparred on their voting records, on their attitudes to surveillance and the treatment of immigrants. Unlike Bush vs. Trump, this was a clash of equals (if you credit the polls), largely fought on substantive, important minutiae.

It worked in both their favor. According to NPR, which tracks talk time in each debate, Cruz and Rubio topped the talk-time rankings, aided by their constant bickering.

Oddly, one spat never came together for CNN: Trump vs. Cruz. The first question directed at Ted Cruz—about Trump’s statement that he would prevent all Muslims from entering the U.S.—was a thinly-veiled invitation to stick the knife in. Cruz dodged, deftly focusing his response on Obama’s policies, and refused to be drawn. Cruz and Trump avoided attacking each other entirely for the duration of the debate. They stood shoulder to shoulder, literally on the stage, and figuratively, in an odd mutually respective bromance. Could they be setting up as potential running mates? A long-standing man-date in the White House? See you in Cleveland.