Did we learn anything about the Republican primary battle in Wednesday night’s debate? Basically, there are two contests going on at once. Donald Trump, Ben Carson, and Carly Fiorina are competing to be the most compelling anti-politician. Trump showed flashes of wit, but there are signs that his schtick is wearing thin. Carson came across as earnest, thoughtful, and intelligent, and he has just as a much of a claim to outsider status as Trump. Fiorina was legitimately awesome, in large part because she manages to be disciplined without coming across as robotic. She was so well-briefed that every other candidate on the stage, with the exception of Marco Rubio, who was also polished and prepared, ought to have felt embarrassed. The main flaw of the anti-politician type is that the anti-politician is generally not as knowledgeable as she or he ought to be about the issues of the day. Fiorina is an anti-politician who knows what she’s talking about, or at least who does an insanely good job of faking it. She will thrive.
So that’s the anti-politicians. The other contest is the one among the Republican regulars, and here you get the sense that we will soon see a great winnowing. Ted Cruz badly wants to be in the anti-politician lane, but he’s not pulling it off. Still, his healthy self-regard will keep him in the race indefinitely. I’m guessing that Scott Walker will stick around for at least another few weeks, though he didn’t help himself all that much last night. Mike Huckabee is the most polished speaker, and he loses nothing by remaining in the race. Rubio was by far the best of the conventional candidates, but what he really needs is for panicking Jeb donors to flock to him, and it’s not clear that they will. Rand Paul is finally recognizing that he should own his libertarianism, and stop trying to soften his rough edges to appeal to the GOP mainstream. He’ll stick around. If I had to choose, I’d say that Chris Christie will be the next candidate to go, despite the fact that he did a solid job last night. What is Christie giving us that, say, Jeb or John Kasich are not? I’ll bet many of his loyal supporters are asking themselves that same question.
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