I don’t think that anyone did incredibly better or worse than we might have expected them to. Perhaps Christie improved over previous debates, but not enough to have any chance of winning anything.
What’s significant is who attacked whom. Trump and Cruz did not get into any arguments with each other. Most of the arguing was between Rubio and Cruz, and between Trump and Bush. Trump thinks that the questioners led Bush into attacking him. Or maybe it was a new Bush strategy. In a previous debate, he attacked Rubio, it didn’t work, maybe he figured he could do better by attacking Trump instead of Rubio. But it didn’t work. Trump trounced him.
Maybe it’s wishful thinking on my part, but I don’t think Cruz did as well this debate as he did last debate. Instead of stealing Trump’s immigration thunder, he got bogged down in arguments with Rubio about who was weaker on immigration, benefiting Trump.
Trump avoided making any extreme statements, and in fact just the opposite, when asked about his previous statements he offered big-picture answers that avoided details; Trump refused to say anything specific about banning Muslims or killing the families of terrorists.
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Unscientific Drudge poll has 45% saying Trump won, which actually means he lost because I believe he did better on previous unscientific Drudge polls.
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Commenter Andrew E makes a good point:
I think it’s clear that this was easily Trump’s best debate. He also had the best moment of all the debates when he stunned the crowd into silence by declaring confidently that our entire mid-east policy of regime change (Obama AND Bush) has been a total waste of both trillions of dollars and many hundreds of thousands of lives (soldiers and civilians).
Behind Trump’s big-pictures answers, there are some extremely important policy differences between Trump and other Republicans:
1. Trump is anti-immigration while all other Republicans vacillate on this issue. Even Cruz who voted for more H-1Bs and more green cards.
2. Trump is serious about building a wall. It’s doubtful that any other candidate is serious about that.
3. Trump has consistently said that it was wrong to invade Iraq and it would be wrong to make the same sort of mistake again. As Andrew E notes, no other Republican is willing to completely disagree with the George W. Bush policies.
4. In a previous debate when every other candidate said how they won’t talk to Putin, Trump said he would talk with him, making Trump the most moderate and reasonable candidate.
5. Trump clearly comes out in favor of ignoring Assad because of the bigger problem of ISIS. (OK, well maybe Paul also is against removing Assad, but he comes off more and more like someone who’s losing his mind because no one else agrees with him on anything.)
6. And why can’t we remove Syria and Iraq from the global internet? It’s actually kind of weird that Syria is supposedly destroyed by civil war yet ISIS seems to have full internet access.