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Breaking down the GOP presidential debate

Donald Trump, left, and Jeb Bush, right, talk over each other as Ted Cruz  listens during the Republican presidential debate Tuesday in Las Vegas. [Getty Images]
Donald Trump, left, and Jeb Bush, right, talk over each other as Ted Cruz listens during the Republican presidential debate Tuesday in Las Vegas. [Getty Images]
Published Dec. 16, 2015

The fifth GOP presidential debate for the 2016 race was Tuesday night at the Venetian Resort Hotel and Casino in Las Vegas. It was moderated by Wolf Blitzer, with Dana Bash and Hugh Hewitt as panelists. Here's your water-cooler recap.


Jeb Bush, 62

Former governor of Florida (1999-2007); son of former President George H.W. Bush and brother of former President George W. Bush

Quote: "Donald Trump is great at the one-liners, but he's a chaos candidate and he'd be a chaos president. He would not be the commander in chief we need to keep our country safe."

Best moment: Bush took on Trump several times and actually got the better of him in several exchanges. Playing the serious, commander-in-chief candidate for serious times worked.

Biggest misstep: His opening statement was almost cringe-worthy, with Bush looking nervous, and stumbling over words that he clearly had worked hard to memorize.

Rating the performance: Jeb Bush had a deep, deep hole to climb out of, heading into the Vegas debate. This was his strongest debate (not necessarily saying much), but he needs a lot more to pull himself back into contention in this race.


Ben Carson, 64

Retired neurosurgeon born in Michigan; resident of Florida

Quote: "We have to get rid of all this PC stuff. And people are worried about if somebody's going to say that I'm Islamophobic or what have you. This is craziness because we are at war. That's why I asked Congress, go ahead and declare the war."

Best moment: In his opening statement, Carson called for a moment of silence for victims of the San Bernardino terrorist attacks, taking a more humane approach than the war-ready rhetoric of his rivals.

Biggest misstep: Carson showed he wasn't ready for the debate when Wolf Blitzer asked him who was right in a debate between Paul and Rubio over immigration and national security. Carson took a pass and looked weak. As well, a persistent cough heard on stage was apparently his.

Rating the performance: Carson must have dreaded this debate as he has stumbled over foreign policy in recent weeks. He revealed his limitations and his sleepy persona doesn't match the urgency of the issues that have unfolded since Paris and San Bernardino. He's slipping in the polls and did not help himself.


Chris Christie, 53

Governor of New Jersey, elected in 2009

Quote: "Yes, we would shoot down the planes of Russian pilots if they were stupid enough to think that this president is the same feckless weakling that we have in the White House."

Best moment: Christie several times scoffed at the arguing U.S. senators — Rubio, Cruz and Paul — casting them as petty do-nothing legislators, rather than can-do executives like himself. It's an easy applause line, and it worked.

Biggest misstep: His opening statement essentially suggested that while mothers walk their children to bus stops in the morning, fathers head to work.

Rating the performance: Christie remains a wildcard, with some potential to gain real momentum as other establishment favorites falter.


Ted Cruz, 44

U.S. senator from Texas elected in 2012

Quote: "Let's be absolutely clear, ISIS and radical Islamic terrorism will face no more determined foe than I will be."

Best moment: He ripped into Rubio for supporting some foreign policy aims of Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama.

Biggest misstep: Wouldn't directly answer Rubio's question if he still supported legal status for some undocumented immigrants. Cruz is no doubt more of a hard-liner than Rubio, but he looked like a politician he claims not to be.

Rating the performance: Mixed. He talked tough all night but was put on the defensive early about voting for the USA Freedom Act. At one point, Cruz wouldn't stop talking while debate moderators tried to move on. He refused to acknowledge his private criticism of Trump. Some Cruz converts may second-guess their choice.


Carly Fiorina, 61

Former chief executive officer of Hewlett-Packard

Quote: "For heaven's sakes, every parent in America is checking social media and every employer is as well, but our government can't do it."

Best moment: Standing next to Rubio, the former Hewlett-Packard CEO blasted "first term-senators" who talk well but haven't made real decisions.

Biggest misstep: Backtracked on previous comments about not engaging with Russian President Vladimir Putin. She was far less absolute even while saying she would not talk to him before making several steps.

Rating the performance: She showed why she belonged on the stage, offering crisp answers and looking confident. But overall she did not stand out and probably won't change the downward trajectory of her campaign.


John Kasich, 63

Governor of Ohio, elected in 2010; former congressman representing Ohio

Quote: "When I see they have a climate conference over in Paris, they should have been talking about destroying ISIS because they are involved in virtually every country, you know, across this world."

Best moment: Interjected during a Trump-Bush battle to say all the arguing won't solve the country's problems. "The world wants us to be able to function from strength ... it can be done and we can be great if we join together."

Biggest misstep: His first question was about the war on terror and he invoked "a coalition similar to what we had in the first Gulf War." It was a dated reference for a candidate who has had a long political career.

Rating the performance: Kasich has his fans but like Fiorina, he didn't stand out. His responses often ran over the time limit. He was supposed to be a better version of Bush but has failed to convince Republicans to give him a serious look. Tuesday did nothing to correct that.


Rand Paul, 52

U.S. senator from Kentucky elected in 2010; ophthalmologist

Quote: "Marco can't have it both ways. He thinks he wants to be this, 'Oh, I'm great and strong on national defense.' But he's the weakest of all the candidates on immigration. He is the one for an open border that is leaving us defenseless."

Best moment: Paul managed to hit Rubio on his biggest GOP primary vulnerability — his immigration reform work with the "Gang of Eight" — more effectively than any other Republican rival has to date.

Biggest misstep: Paul did stand out Tuesday night, but attacking every other candidate the way he did can turn off the voters he needs.

Rating the performance: A strong performance for the libertarian Republican, but arguing against strengthening intelligence gathering and pulling back on military resources may not be the strongest message in the aftermath of Paris and San Bernardino.


Marco Rubio, 44

U.S. senator from Florida elected in 2010; former speaker of the Florida House; lawyer

Quote: "If you're an American citizen and you decide to join up with ISIS, we're not going to read you your Miranda rights. You're going to be treated as an enemy combatant."

Best moment: He was strong on foreign policy throughout the night.

Biggest misstep: As Paul attacked him on immigration, Rubio showed visible discomfort. Later, Rubio dodged on a direct question about his support for a pathway to citizenship.

Rating the performance: Rubio came under attack from several of his rivals and overall handled those charges well. He was smooth and ticked off the names of foreign figures and world hotspots. If Rubio continues to climb he can expect more scrutiny, but he put in another solid performance.


Donald Trump, 69

Real estate mogul; TV personality

Quote: "We are not talking about isolation. We're talking about security. We're not talking about religion. We're talking about security. Our country is out of control. People are pouring across the southern border. I will build a wall. It will be a great wall."

Best moment: Trump had no particularly strong moment, nor did he have any awful moment. Given his standing in the primary and knack to brushing off things that would doom most candidates, it was another fine night for Trump.

Biggest misstep: He seemed more rattled and irritated than in prior debates — and taken aback by booing audience members at one point. Also, shutting down part of the Internet? Huh? That's what Trump appeared to advocate as part of his national security strategy.

Rating the performance: Substance is not his strong suit, so Trump was often a side player in Tuesday's debate. But he mostly held his own, and it's hard to see how Vegas did anything to change the trajectory of his campaign.