Marco Rubio emerged unscathed. Ben Carson defended his integrity. Donald Trump flashed his dominant personality. And Jeb Bush avoided disaster.
Aided by tentative questioning, the GOP’s top presidential candidates executed their strategies with little resistance in Tuesday night’s prime-time debate. Yet with no breakout moments — good or bad — the muddled status quo continues in the Republican Party’s unruly 2016 contest, with time running out to change voters’ minds heading to the end of 2015.
That’s good news for leading outsiders Trump and Carson, who have surprised the political world with remarkable staying power atop national polls. It’s also good news for a surging Rubio, who entered the night with a target on his back and avoided any stumbles.
The status quo is not as good for Bush, the onetime establishment favorite now clinging to his political life.
The former Florida governor lived to fight another day after Tuesday’s performance. But he was overshadowed at times by another pragmatic-minded executive, Ohio Gov. John Kasich, who stepped on Bush’s opportunities and gave nervous supporters another reason to question Bush’s New Hampshire-focused comeback attempt.
Bush’s best moments came early in the night as he showed a feistier side with moderators, who ignored him for the first 15 minutes.
“You’ve already made two comments, John,” Bush said to Kasich, who is challenging Bush in New Hampshire. “It’s my turn.”
But Bush did not stand out on a night that featured just eight candidates on the main stage, two fewer than the last debate. He answered the fewest questions and had less airtime than anyone except Rand Paul, according to an AP clock.
In his limited time, Bush aggressively criticized Democrats’ leadership on the economy.
“My worry is that the real economy has been hurt by the vast overreach of the Obama administration,” Bush declared. “And Hillary Clinton, she wants to double down on that.”
If Bush did well Tuesday night, however, Rubio did better.
Bush and the rest of the field completely ignored questions raised this week about Rubio’s use of a Florida GOP credit card during his time in the state legislature. The Rubio campaign had released two years of spending reports just days earlier.
And none of the candidates — or moderators — engaged Rubio when the discussion shifted to immigration, considered a key vulnerability among conservatives who oppose Rubio’s plan to give immigrants in the country illegally a pathway to citizenship.
Instead, Rubio was free to outline his calls for a strong national defense and describe his moving personal story — standard campaign trail talking points delivered uninterrupted before a national audience.