After a hotly contested Iowa Caucus that led to allegations of foul play against the winner, many expected sparks to fly during the final debate before the New Hampshire presidential primaries, which take place on Tuesday. To some extent they did, although the night will probably be most remembered for Ben Carson’s apparent inability to walk onto a stage.
If you haven’t already seen it, you really should. The neurosurgeon spends almost a full two minutes stood in a narrow corridor, looking generally uncertain. Other candidates walk past him, or in Donald Trump’s case, hang around in a possible show of solidarity. Jeb Bush, who looks a much better candidate when he isn’t speaking, even gives Trump a pat on the arm, coupled with a look of bemusement as he brushes past the two men. At one point, a crew member can even be seen urging Carson to take the stage, motioning with his arm in a clear push for Carson to move, only for the doctor to stand there as his opponents stroll past or get stuck behind him in an embarrassing logjam. Things got so bad that Marco Rubio could be heard asking, “Where’s Kasich?” after Trump and Carson finally emerged to take their places and the Ohio governor waited patiently to be introduced.
Sadly for Carson, that was his moment in the sun. Although he sounded calm and authoritative when asked about the Zika virus and Obamacare, when a candidate has to remind people at the end of a debate that he’s “still here”, then they have had a bad night. To be fair to Carson, however, he was invited to speak less than any other candidate, partially due to the debate rule that you get a response if your name is mentioned by another speaker. Clearly, nobody saw him as enough of a threat to attack him by name, and he got less screen time as a result.
The same could not be said of Florida’s Marco Rubio, who was the surprise package in Iowa and therefore Public Enemy Number One as far as the other candidates were concerned. Chris Christie was by far the hardest on Rubio, claiming that America had already made the mistake of electing a first-term senator (Barack Obama) and should not do so again. Christie contrasted his executive experience of state emergencies and job creation as Governor of New Jersey with serving in Congress, which he described as something akin to a holiday camp for people who are all talk and no action.
Rubio hit back hard, accusing Christie of putting his campaign before his constituents by saying he had to be “dragged back” to New Jersey to deal with a severe snowstorm. However, the senator also reused a line from earlier in the night about Obama “knowing exactly what he was doing”, repeating the 25-second script almost word for word. Christie, ever the prosecutor, seized on this misstep to again attack Rubio as a Washington robot with nothing of substance to say. Bizarrely, Rubio’s response was then to repeat almost the entire soundbite. Then he said it a third time. It looked ridiculous and Christie could not believe his luck. From that point on, Rubio looked like a busted flush; any momentum gained from his third place finish in Iowa had gone. Just when he needed to have a good night, he flopped.
Christie, on the other hand, had a very good night, as did Ohio’s John Kasich. Both men are successful governors and were therefore able to cite a list of achievements that the two senators, Rubio and Cruz, could not match. One ABC pundit was so impressed by the two men he dubbed the debate “the night of the governors”. Even Jeb Bush put in a decent performance, drawing blood from Donald Trump, who he accused of trying to evict an old lady from her home to build a car park. This was one of several strong moments, but Bush also declared himself the president of Florida and constantly stumbled over his words.
As for Donald Trump, he was his usual blustery self. He explicitly accused Ted Cruz of dirty tricks, referring to allegations the senator misrepresented a news report about Ben Carson’s candidacy that some believe snatched victory from the New York business mogul. No-one was safe from Trump, not even the audience. When they booed him for telling Jeb Bush to shut up, he turned on them, saying they were all donors and reiterating his status as the only contender who could fund his own candidacy.
Finally, there was the controversy that nobody mentioned, which was the exclusion of Carly Fiorina, the former chief executive of Hewlett Packard and sole female candidate for the Republican nomination. She beat Christie and Kasich in Iowa, but both men qualified for the debate due to their poll numbers in New Hampshire. She claimed that the system was “rigged” and senior Republicans had lobbied for her exclusion.
Rubio performed badly enough that it is even harder to predict who the nominee will be than it was before the Iowa vote last week. Trump continues to draw big crowds and Cruz is also still going strong. The mission of the three governors was to perform strongly enough to convince New Hampshire voters that they are the sensible choice and to make Rubio look like a risk whose time had come too soon. Christie and Kasich looked presidential in their different ways and both will take heart from their performance. The game is on; but the result is impossible to predict.