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Third Republican debate: who will it help?


With foreign policy realities in rapid flux, the nomination is increasingly almost anyone's. I do think that ultimately the contest comes down to foreign policy and that tonight's debate therefore will not affect it much. Also, there is a lot of time and several more debates to come, and some candidates (particularly Bush and Trump) are holding strong assets in reserve. That said, I think it could provide a well-timed boost to some candidates or a blow to others.

On the whole, solid performances in the face of difficult questions. The Republican field as a whole looks more competitive against the Democrats than they did last month. The weakest performances were by Carson and Bush. Next week's front-runners: Trump, Rubio, and Fiorina. To be more specific:

Donald Trump: Reinforced his "outsider" brand while providing enough specificity to be taken seriously. Avoided bullying behavior and backed off from some of his extreme rhetoric on immigration. Landed a well-timed attack on Obama's foreign policy. Misstepped a bit when he answered the bankruptcy question by saying he was good at getting out of debt. But in all, a solid performance that will help him maintain his lead. What he loses to Fiorina, Cruz, Paul, and Huckabee he can largely make up with points he pulls from Carson and Bush.
Ben Carson: Fielded a few questions well, but seemed over his head at other times. Failed badly to defend his tax plan, hitting a real low point when he said it would work if we just taxed a lot more commercial activity. Handled the Mannatech question about as well as he might have, but still came off looking like a snake-oil salesman. He was the big loser tonight, and at what may have been a crucial turning point for his campaign.
Marco Rubio: A strong performance. He not only looked bullied by Bush; he also mounted a spirited defense. However, he seemed to be trying to run from his unpopular (among Republicans) position on inflation, which will only cost him the support of the Republicans who do support him mainly for that reason. And although he did his best to slip the question by turning it back on the moderators, his weak defense of his financial judgment leaves him vulnerable to attack by Trump, Christie, etc. May not get much of a boost from last night, but remains a leading contender for the nomination.
Jeb Bush: Lackluster. No big missteps, and a couple attacks against the Democrats that will play well, but for the most part his answers came out sounding canned. Also, his attacks on Rubio were out of step with the unspoken consensus of engaging in constructive criticism. And "a warm kiss"? No one wants to picture that. Certainly not the kind of strong performance needed to turn his floundering campaign around, and the party insiders backing him may start looking around for a new candidate (Rubio, Christie, Fiorina, Kasich, etc.).
Carly Fiorina: Hit it out of the park every chance she got. Staked out a position in the deregulatory center of her party, and defended it with credibility and flair. Deflected questions about Hewlett-Packard to the point that she came out looking like a good executive. I expect her to get the biggest boost from this debate.
Ted Cruz: Got the biggest applause line of the night with his attacks on the moderators. The resultant publicity is the best thing his campaign can ask for. On the other hand, the fact that he went on not to answer the question that was asked and then demanded more time will probably remind people why they don't like him in the first place. Also, facing fierce competition on the right from Huckabee and Paul. I expect a small boost for him.
Mike Huckabee: An excellent performance. Staking out territory as a defender of Social Security and Medicare, and his signature disease-research proposal, will appeal to working-class voters. Also, eminently more electable than Cruz in the general election. Unfortunately for him, Cruz and Paul also put in strong performances. Also, saying that his wife knows what his biggest weakness is psychologically projects an image of sexual impotence. Will probably get a small boost from last night, but look for him to gain traction as an alternative to the front-runners down the road.
Chris Christie: A courageous and articulate performance, and he'll probably benefit from Bush's implosion, but coming out attacking Social Security and Medicare while echoing positions already articulated by other candidates won't help rocket him into the ranks of the front-runners. It could get his campaign the infusion of corporate cash it needs to keep alive, though.
John Kasich: A solid performance. As a Bob Dole Republican, however, he's out of step with today's Republican party. Christie overshadows him for the fiscal conservative and climate-realist vote, while he did little to distinguish himself from Christie. Also made unpopular attacks on Social Security. His attacks on marijuana will be unpopular in some quarters also. Probably needed Rubio and/or Christie to perform worse for Kasich to get any traction; the nomination is increasingly looking out of reach for him. Expect him to turn to the right if he doesn't drop out.
Rand Paul: Articulate and affable. Eliminating the payroll tax will be a very popular proposal, and by being the first in the debate to mention it made Cruz look like an also-ran. Also, probably more electable than Cruz, Huckabee, or maybe even Trump. Unfortunately for him, Cruz and Huckabee also turned in winning performances, while Trump performed credibly. Look for a small boost for him.

As to the undercard candidates:
Rick Santorum: A weak performance. Stumbled over his opening statement and over the question about corporate taxes. Managed to sound like a big-government interventionist without making a credible populist appeal. Expect his poll numbers to drop.
Bobby Jindal: Sounded informed and articulate, but didn't distinguish himself enough to break into Trump's lead. He is very much a long-shot candidate.
Lindsey Graham: Strong performance, but as a Reagan Republican is seriously out of step with today's party. His campaign is going nowhere.
George Pataki: Strong performance, but as an Eisenhower Republican is a living fossil. People attracted to his brand of politics are going to be backing more electable candidates (Rubio, Bush, Clinton). His campaign is going nowhere.