At an unhinged moment in the 2016 presidential primary season, the Republican candidates turned in a fine set of unhinged performances at Thursday night's critical debate.
Let's begin with Donald Trump, far and away the strongest contender, be it in Ted Cruz's backyard or Marco Rubio's home state. For the first time, he met his rhetorical match in a surprisingly vitriolic Rubio. The Florida senator devoted himself to going shout-for-shout with Trump, dragging out old scandals and unseemly details that put the mogul's present-day promises in an unflattering light. But even when Trump visibly ground his gears, he stayed characteristically unflappable. He's got a big enough cushion to risk staying the course. Although he lost the initiative last night, the game was not changed.
From the look on Rubio's face, however, you'd think there was a revolution onstage. With every attack on Trump, he preened and puffed. When Trump and Cruz mixed it up, Rubio visibly itched to squeeze in another zinger, another bullet point, another piece of evidence that he had graduated to the big leagues. (Those monitoring media Twitter might have felt the hovering presence of political helicopter parents — established Rubio backers doling out anxious attaboys from the sidelines.)
Without a doubt, Rubio wins debates, and he won Thursday's contest, as the media, the focus groups, and the insiders will tell you. His scores, however, have yet to translate into a commensurate clutch of delegates. In this lopsided but unstable race, that might change. But I wouldn't bet on it.
Speaking of wagers, any Republican looking to make a safe bet in 2016 must have felt a pang watching Cruz and John Kasich take a backseat to the Trump vs. Rubio show. Cruz and Kasich are the least risky options for the nomination, judging by the details of their agendas and, relatedly, their dispositions. But neither had a good night.
You may think it's weird to hear Cruz described as safe. He mounted a tartly independent campaign, and Kasich a willfully heterodox one, alienating their share of mainline bigwigs along the way. But Cruz really does want to go on offense for a new Reagan coalition, as opposed to the defensive constituency that would power Rubio's third Bush term. And Kasich, sketching out some unthreatening third option, channels big-government traditionalism at home and hawk-eyed realism abroad.
These approaches both stand in stark contrast to the high-risk campaigns run by Trump and Rubio — both of whom are locked into a level of hubristic performance art where they present their every utterance as holy writ. Bizarrely, Cruz's string of setbacks has made him seem less contemptuous of everyone around him, and Kasich's weak showing has made him like Ben Carson but with a pulse, while Rubio's and Trump's fortunes have made them more tonally similar even as their rivalry has diminished both men. Too snide, too superficial, and far too ego-driven, the two offered equally dangerous options: Bushism without the family ballast, or anti-Bushism without the wisdom of the ages.
On the other hand, all too little evidence suggests this most debate-y of Republican debates will make a difference at the ballot box. Every candidate gratified his supporters and incensed his detractors. Trump haters thrilled to Rubio's cheesy collegiate zingers, while Trump lovers laughed off the boy wonder's belated effort to punch up. Rubio fans saw the complete package last night; Rubio skeptics, a cranked-up ambition bot whose irritated, irritating cadence never changes. Kasich people celebrated a man above it all — while others called for the cane. Perhaps only Carson united observers (against him).
Trump must now begin running a general election campaign, not only broader in its appeal but sharper in its detail. If he chooses not to, he could well be picked apart and left for dead at the convention. Rubio must find some way to humble himself and earn some trust. Running as an even cockier and less experienced iteration of George W. Bush will unite the party's elder losers and negate his youthful optimism. Cruz needs to show he's a surer, wiser bet than either of the frontrunners. Otherwise his personal negatives will crush him. And Kasich has to do the same, lest his personal positives make him a soft but distracting smudge quickly wiped away.