Business mogul Donald Trump returned to the debate stage Saturday night and emerged victorious, but his first-place finish was largely by default. Days before the New Hampshire primary, Trump looked like a winner simply because Florida Sen. Marco Rubio, well, didn't.
"Well, I'll tell you what. In the Middle East, we have people chopping the heads off Christians. We have people chopping the heads off many other people. We have things that we have never seen before, as a group, we have never seen before, what's happening right now. The medieval times, I mean, we studied medieval times, not since medieval times have people seen what's going on. I would bring back waterboarding and I would bring back a hell of a lot worse than waterboarding," Trump said during the debate, sticking to the kind of pointed foreign policy approach that has won over voters for months.
While New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, Ohio Gov. John Kasich and former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush all put up a good fight during the debate hosted by ABC News, the struggling candidates needed a perfect performance to win after placing at the bottom of the pack in national polls and in the Iowa caucuses Monday night, and they couldn't clear that high bar. The three argued that being governor had prepared them for the presidency.
The debate offered one last opportunity for the candidates to stand out against their rivals just three days before New Hampshire's crucial first-in-the-nation primary. They were ready with forceful punches.
"Marco Rubio's worst... at a time he needed his best. Hard to say who won but Marco Rubio lost" https://t.co/YwBAjY4ou7
— American Bridge (@American_Bridge) February 7, 2016
At one point, Christie wouldn't let Rubio finish listing his accomplishments as a senator. “You weren’t even there to vote for it,” Christie snapped after Rubio mentioned anti-terrorism legislation. “That’s not leadership. That’s truancy.”
As sweat began to trickle down his face, Rubio hit back by pointing out New Jersey’s nine credit downgrades under Christie. He also accused Christie of not wanting to leave New Hampshire to return to his state after a huge snowstorm hit last month.
“You know what the shame is, Marco? The shame is that you would actually criticize somebody for showing up to work, plowing the street, getting the trains run back on time, when you’ve never been responsible for that your entire life,” Christie replied, adding that senators shouldn't be presidents. (Ahem, President Barack Obama, he was talking about you.)
Rubio, who placed third in Iowa Monday night and is pushing to become the establishment pick in the nomination race, needs a New Hampshire victory to burnish his credentials. But he kept repeating his talking points Saturday night in a manner that made him look unprepared and vulnerable. He said several times that Obama knows what he is doing as president, meaning that he is intentionally pushing policy that Republicans claim have hurt the nation, but his remarks came across as a defense of the White House.
"At one point, Marco Rubio got a softball when he was asked whether Trump was a conservative. In his answer, Rubio didn't mention Trump once. Given Rubio is perhaps the one guy who could beat Trump on Tuesday, that was striking. And then there's the fact that Rubio didn't have a great night (more on that later). The combination of those two things couldn't have been better for Trump," the Washington Post concluded.
Rubio did shine when the debate turned to foreign policy, which could help maintain his standings in New Hampshire. "Sunni cities and villages can only truly be liberated and held by Sunnis themselves. If they are held by shias, will start sectarian violence. Kurds do not want to liberate and hold Sunni villages and towns. It will take Sunni fighters toe take those villages and cities and to avoid the sectarian violence that follows in the past. And why that is important is because if Sunnis are not able to govern themselves in these areas, you are going to have a successor group to ISIS," he said.
Bush, Christie and Kasich are the other moderate Republicans campaigning as the most electable candidate. They did poorly in Iowa and it's unclear how they can make it to the general election if they don't do well in New Hampshire Tuesday.
"I couldn't even imagine how we would even begin to think about taking a mom or a dad out of a house when they have not committed a crime since they've been here, leaving their children in the house? I mean, that is not, in my opinion, the kind of values that we believe in," Kasich said at one point, explaining his immigration plan and once again revealing the type of moderate views that could play well in a general election contest, if he ever made it that far. "And secondly, I think at the end of the day, that Americans would support a plan like this. I think Congress would pass a plan, to finish the border, guest worker, pay a fine, a path to legalization, and not citizenship. And we've got to get this done."
everybody on twitter is saying a different person is winning the debate
— Glenn Thrush (@GlennThrush) February 7, 2016
Rubio's rising star and Trump's declining popularity loomed over the debate. Trump skipped out of the previous Republican debate just days ahead of Iowa over a scuffle with Fox News, the network hosting the televised event. He returned to the national stage Saturday night after placing second in Iowa while still protecting his massive edge in New Hampshire, where he leads his next closest contender, Rubio, by 14 points, according to the RealClearPolitics average.
At times, it seemed the debate crowd wasn't game for Trump's typical antics. He was booed repeatedly after Trump tried to shush Bush during an exchange about Trump’s attempted use of eminent domain in Atlantic City. “He wants to be a tough guy,” Trump said. Trump then told the television audience that the debate crowd was full of Bush donors who were unhappy that Trump wouldn’t take their donations. Still, Time.com readers named Trump in an unscientific online poll as the debate winner.
Bush, however, got a few good jabs in. "The difference between eminent domain for public purpose, roads and pipelines, that's for public purpose. What Donald Trump did was use eminent domain to try to take the property of an elderly woman on the strip in Atlantic City. That is not public purpose. That is down right wrong," he shot back at Trump.
Trump, who has spent the campaign season verbally tearing apart his opponents, also went after Texas Sen. Ted Cruz. Trump has declared that Cruz won the Iowa caucuses only because he stole the election from him with dirty tricks. Cruz finished first by about 6,000 votes out of 180,000 cast. Trump has demanded a do-over and threatened legal action, alleging that Cruz confused voters by claiming Ben Carson had exited the presidential campaign when he hadn't. When Cruz mentioned his victory during the debate, Trump responded, “That’s because he got Ben Carson’s votes by the way, but we won’t say that."
There was a smaller cast of contenders Saturday night. Former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee, former Sen. Rick Santorum and Sen. Rand Paul all dropped out of the 2016 race after performing poorly in Iowa. Former Hewlett-Packard chief Carly Fiorina was excluded from the event because of her low poll numbers.