IN A TRUMP-LESS DEBATE, HERE’S WHO CAME OUT ON TOP

John Hart, Opportunity Lives Editor-in-Chief, @johnhart333
Donald Trump’s decision to skip the final debate before Iowa will be remembered as the moment he jumped the shark or proved, yet again, that he can remain popular in spite of himself. Skipping the debate was disrespectful to the thousands of Iowa voters who are trying to make up their mind. And refusing to stand toe to toe with Fox News’ Megyn Kelly was a sign of weakness from a candidate who claims he’ll be able to push around the Chinese and other foreign leaders. Iowa voters, a supermajority of whom still don’t back Trump, get to decide what this means in just a few days.

The winner of the debate wasn’t Trump or any of the Republican candidates on stage but President Barack Obama and his political team who mapped out an immigration strategy designed to divide Republicans.

Trump’s rise is the result of several factors: the Republican party’s difficulty breaking through with a positive aspirational message that appeals to anxious middle class workers; unhappiness created by cautious leadership in the pre-Paul Ryan era; unhappiness created by unrealistic expectations about what Republicans could accomplish fueled by leadership critics; and, finally, President Obama’s executive order on amnesty that enraged the Republican base.

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Even though last night’s debate showcased this division on immigration, Republicans still have the edge on policy and ideas. As Democrats flirt with nominating a socialist, Republicans can prevail if we nominate someone who can articulate an aspirational message based on a belief in free enterprise and individual freedom. Anyone other than Trump can carry that message into November.

Israel Ortega, OL Senior Writer, @IzzyOrtega
Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.), the man Time once described as “the most interesting man in politics,” made the most of Donald Trump’s absence in Thursday night’s Republican presidential debate before the Iowa caucuses. In a number of exchanges, Paul showed flashes of brilliance distinguishing himself from the rest of the Republican field, particularly on national security and his record on criminal justice reform and the war on drugs. Unfortunately for the junior senator from Kentucky, this strong showing may not be enough to catapult him as a leading contender for the Republican nomination.

Similarly, New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie seemed at ease for most of the night, even when the conversation turned to his Bridge Gate past, but like Paul he may find himself with little time to change public opinion in Iowa and New Hampshire to revive his flagging campaign.

Among the candidates that have a plausible path to the nomination, Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) and Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas) both faced increased scrutiny, particularly on their records on immigration. Of the two, Rubio provided a better response by acknowledging his own immigration roots and the need to support immigration while affirming the rule of law and securing the U.S.-Mexico border. Public opinion polls reveal that the majority of the American people realize that it is inhumane and impractical to deport the over twelve million of undocumented workers living in the United States, as some Republican candidates have contended as important steps to take to control immigration.

Cruz on the other hand seemed defensive and cagey in his response to explain his previous support for increased levels of legal immigration. He refused to acknowledge a change of position on the question of legalization, despite video proof that he has been on the record strongly supporting legal immigration into our country and touting his legislative efforts back in 2013 to increase the number of visas for high skilled workers.

Without Donald Trump on the stage, the last Republican presidential debate was heavy on substance and policy. The people of Iowa and the American people deserve nothing less.

Ellen Carmichael, OL Senior Writer, @ellencarmichael
As usual, I scored each answer from each candidate and then took an average. This is how it turned out overall:

Rubio: A

Bush: B+

Christie: B+

Paul: B+

Cruz: C+

Kasich: C

Carson: D

As in the previous debates, I thought Rubio performed best. Fox News’ immigration montage tripped him up a bit, but he came out relatively unscathed in what promises to be his toughest challenge in this election cycle. Pollster Frank Luntz’s focus group had an overwhelming consensus: 23 of 27 participants believed Rubio won. Many are walking away planning to caucus for him. His campaign made a risky bet waiting until now to “peak,” but it might be just the right time.

This was also a great night for Bush and probably his best yet. He had solid policy answers, and his admission that he couldn’t choose his family, even if that made him “Establishment” was well-taken. He’s got a great record in Florida, and he did a good job touting it.

Christie had a nice night, too, but with Jeb Bush rising, it’s hard to see him standing out.

This was definitely Rand Paul’s best debate performance, and he packed the auditorium with rowdy supporters to boost him. His answer about Hillary Clinton’s association with foreign governments oppressing women got high marks from me. Paul’s got a pretty steady stream of support in Iowa, and tonight helped solidify that.

Cruz’s recent debate showings have improved dramatically, but tonight – like the second-half of the fifth debate – was a disaster. He was booed for his complaint of receiving “mean questions,” as well as his refusal to play by the debate rules. Further, in the second half, he totally faded into the background. If this was his closing case to Iowans, he failed miserably. The one bright spot was his passionate articulation of conservative alternatives to Obamacare. Other than that, I see his performance as a step back.

Kasich’s got a pretty impressive resume, but if it weren’t for his growing support in New Hampshire, he wouldn’t even be on the stage anymore. His answers fall flat, and none of them seem memorable. His plea that Republicans embrace the mantle of mental health is great, but he’s just not the messenger that’s going to convince people.

Finally, I feel earnestly sorry for Dr. Ben Carson. He’s an utterly brilliant man who has achieved more than anyone on the stage when it comes to things that really matter. But he’s not presidential material, and he has not made any efforts to become more specific on policy. We live in dangerous and complicated times, and his responses (which somehow always revert to not being politically correct or not having the government pick winners and losers) fail to meet the severity of the circumstances we face.

Tom Rogan, OL Contributor, @TomRtweets
The night’s victor was Jeb Bush. He passionately articulated a defense of American society as the exceptional home of individual diversity and definitive values. And he was courageous — for someone low in the polls — in challenging Donald Trump’s anti-Muslim bigotry without hesitation. This was the Jeb that Jeb needed to roll out months ago.

Marco Rubio had an okay night. He started well, but struggled when challenged on immigration. In words and appearance (sweaty…) he became more stressed as the night went on. Although he finished well, Rubio must work harder to retain his role as the presumptive establishment choice.

Ted Cruz started badly, whining to moderator Chris Wallace about the questioning. Wallace forced him into a retreat. Yet as the night went on, Cruz regained some composure and was impressive in slamming ethanol subsidies as an example of crony capitalism. Chris Christie was punchy but delivered nothing new. Rand Paul was impressive in delivering a heartfelt articulation of his libertarian values. Whatever one thinks about Paul’s politics, and clearly he will not be the nominee, he is a man of values and belief. The GOP is lucky to have him. Carson and Kasich, to be polite, were largely peripheral (although Kasich was strong on mental health).

The night’s key takeaways: 1) Bush is back in the game (at least for a month). 2) Carson, I think, is done. He lacks policy substance and on Vladimir Putin, his response was patently ludicrous. 3) Donald Trump’s absence was noted but not defining — the debate was dynamic and valuable.

Derek Kreifels, President of the State Financial Officers Foundation, @dkreifels
The final GOP debate before the Iowa Caucus in Des Moines was more substantive, constructive, and productive without Donald Trump. Period.

Rubio came out on top. He looked presidential and handled an exchange with Jeb Bush on his immigration policy well. He remains a hawk on national defense and stands out from the crowd as the candidate most ready to deal with national security and ISIS issues. Ted Cruz had a rough night with lackluster humor invoking Trump and whining at Fox News Moderator Megan Kelly when the debate wasn’t going his way. The crowd reacted to Cruz with the most noticeable booing of the night. Jeb Bush had a decent night for a change with an unusual amount of energy. As if he felt free to be himself now that the playground bully wasn’t there.

Gov. Christie had one of the most memorable lines of the night saying that, “the days of the Clintons in public housing are over.” A sentiment that all of the candidates tonight seemed to agree on, each attacking Hillary Clinton more than ever before. Dr. Carson seemed almost surprised when called on at one point making one believe that even he is doubting his place in this crowded GOP field.

Iowans have proven time and time again that they tend to make their caucus decisions late, and aren’t afraid to change their minds. My prediction is that the polling data we’ve all been seeing for the last few weeks will be very different from the caucus results on Monday night.