Without further ado, here are my rankings for both the undercard and the main stage debates:
Donald Trump: B. Coming fresh off an admittedly impressive 41% in the latest national poll from Monmouth University, Trump certainly had a lot at stake tonight. For the most part, this debate will neither be a boon to Trump’s candidacy, nor will it be the silver bullet that finally brings him and his numbers down to Earth. It is worth noting that Trump is starting to look more and more unserious against an increasingly serious primary field. Worst moment: not knowing what the nuclear triad is. Best moment: thoughtful and humble answer about committing to GOP and not running as an independent.
Ben Carson: C. Carson barely has a pulse on his most energetic days, but tonight he seemed especially absent from the dais. Turned in a listless and lackluster performance, but had a few good asides here and there. Carson had the best suit on the stage, but I wasn’t impressed with the tie selection.
Ted Cruz: A-. Another good debate performance from Senator Cruz, whose debate and lawyer chops are shining with full intensity. Cruz is running as a thoroughbred, straight down the line conservative, and outlined his positions with a bold and bellicose speaking style. Cruz pulled a Kasich by talking over the moderators at one point in the middle of the debate, which is why he gets an A-, but all in all he turned in a pretty good performance tonight.
Marco Rubio: A-. Let’s be honest, the deck was stacked against Rubio from the moment he stepped on stage. The media establishment has been gearing up for a Rubio/Cruz showdown this entire week, and CNN obliged by providing as many avenues for the clash to happen as possible. The moderators goaded Cruz and Rubio with pointed questions to attack each other, and there was a substantive and thoughtful debate about NSA surveillance between Cruz and Rubio. Rubio certainly kept composure and looked presidential, but didn’t make a huge splash on stage.*
Jeb Bush: B+. We finally saw some fire from Jeb tonight! With 3% in the polls, a massive war chest and nothing to lose, Jeb finally came alive. Jeb never quite landed a knockout punch on Trump, or any of the opponents, but he will get there if he makes it to the next debate. Jeb is increasingly positioning himself to be the serious, “adult in the room” candidate that is so far lacking from this field. We are seeing Jeb become more and more comfortable with hardball politics to claw his way to the top. Remember, the Bush family is characteristically competitive, and Jeb is no exception.
Carly Fiorina: D. An irrelevant, shrill, non-existent waste of time that always wanted to insert herself into the substantive debates that other candidates were having. Carly never offers anything worthwhile to say. Carly’s an impressive speaker, but she is devoid of substance and has never matched her first two debate performances.
Chris Christie: B+. The “what they’re talking about is irrelevant, but what I’M talking about is important” shtick is getting old really fast. Christie had a decent night, but lacked the breakout moment characteristic of his previous debates. He’s doing well in NH, but will this debate be enough to maintain that momentum?
John Kasich: C-. Wielded his arms around like a karate student and failed to offer even the least memorable statement. Why the hell is this guy still around?
Rand Paul: C-. It was painfully clear by the end of this debate that the only reason that Rand Paul is still around is to be a lap dog for Ted Cruz. It seems as if Rand is on a one-man kamikaze mission to bring down Marco Rubio, and it doesn’t seem to be working. After whining to get the rules changed so he would appear on the main stage, Rand delivered ANOTHER underwhelming performance, apart from his contributions to the NSA debate.
Lindsey Graham: A. He will make a great Secretary of Defense.
Mike Huckabee: B
Santorum, Pataki: Wait, you guys are still here?
*Full disclosure: I work for the Rubio campaign.