The former Florida governor walked onto the CNN debate stage on Tuesday facing a make-or-break moment for his struggling campaign.
Polling at about 3% nationally, pundits had low expectations for Bush. But he was able to make the most of the moment and his performance will likely reassure skittish donors and supporters who have doubted him.
Appearing confident, Bush repeatedly engaged front-runner Donald Trump and at times flustered the real estate mogul. Unlike previous debates where he has backed off, Bush didn’t relent in the face of Trump’s return fire.
“If you think this is tough and you’re not being treated fairly, imagine what it’s going to be like dealing with Putin or dealing with President Xi or dealing with the Islamic terrorism that exists,” Bush said over Trump’s persistent interruptions.
CNN political commentator Michael Smerconish said after the debate that Bush “turned in a strong performance” with his ability to repeatedly needle Trump.
“Jeb had a good night,” he said.
Republican presidential candidate businessman Donald Trump speaks as former Gov. Florida Jeb Bush (R) and Texas Sen.Ted Cruz (C) look on during the Republican Presidential Debate, hosted by CNN. (Photo Credit: ROBYN BECK/AFP/Getty Images)
The tea party favorite avoided a cage match with front-runner Donald Trump in favor of a sparring match with Rubio.
Cruz and Trump have largely avoided skirmishes on the campaign trail but that ended in recent days as the Texas senator’s standing improves in Iowa.
Former Mitt Romney aide and current CNN political commentator Kevin Madden said Cruz’s strategy of avoiding confrontation on the debate stage was effective.
“I think the strategy Cruz has is working, bear hugging Donald Trump. I think Donald Trump does not feel antagonized,” he said.
While Cruz didn’t give viewers anything like the fiery and memorable soundbites his supporters savored in the last debate, the Texas senator gave a strong performance sure to please his base. And by taking aim at — and holding his ground against — Rubio, Cruz did nothing to stall his burgeoning momentum.
Sen. Marco Rubio delivered a front-runner’s performance, as he parried blows from all sides in the crowded field.
Rubio worked to stay above the fray of candidates, focusing on showing off his in-depth understanding of foreign policy and deflecting the attacks his competitors hurled his way. The Florida senator, though engaged in heated exchanges with Cruz and Rand Paul at times, mostly sought to flex his hawkish national security positions rather than attack his competitors.
When prompted to address Trump’s proposal to bar foreign Muslims from entering the U.S. — which Rubio opposes — or to address his recent criticism of Cruz, Rubio didn’t bite. Instead, the Florida senator used the opportunity to speak at length about foreign policy concerns and his own proposals — or to attacking President Barack Obama’s administration.
As the real estate mogul has done in recent debates, Donald Trump offered a measured performance stylistically different from the fiery stump speeches he delivers at rallies to supporters. And the typically confrontational businessman largely avoided tangling with his fellow contenders.
It was a safe performance for Trump, but it’s one that certainly won’t deter his supporters and won’t do anything to hurt his front-runner status.
CNN political commentator David Axelrod, a former top Obama adviser, said that while Trump didn’t meet the bar on facts and “linear thinking,” he was “in character.”
“I think he probably did what he needed to do,” Axelrod said, adding that it didn’t hurt that few of the candidates to Trump’s right and left were “eager to tangle” with the front-runner.
Associated Press / John Lochner
New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie’s goal on Tuesday was to try and further his recent rise in stock in the early primary state of New Hampshire, where talk of national security has boosted the former federal prosecutor.
Christie managed to poke at the three senators in the race by lamenting the tit-for-tat debates Cruz, Rubio and Paul engaged in. The governor continued to play to his executive experience and his prosecutions of terrorism cases as a U.S. attorney.
In one of his strongest moments, Christie slammed the senators on stage as “people who’ve never had to make a consequential decision in an executive position” and proclaimed that voters were looking for “a president who actually knows what they’re doing.”
CNN political commentator Jeffrey Lord, a Trump supporter, noted that like Trump, Christie “was delivering a message” on stage rather than getting too “in the weeds” on policy.