Republican candidates take the stage before the December 15th Debate

Mark J. Terrill | AP Images

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As predicted, the CNN debate was focused solely on the most pressing issue of our time: the threat of Radical Islam and how the nation should deal with it.  Contrary to Jeb Bush’s pronouncement, during the debate, that the focus should be on how bad Obama is and “not on our differences,” the voters deserved a debate where the candidates differentiated themselves on national security. They got it.

As CR’s Editor-in-Chief Mark Levin noted, the editorial team at CR did a thorough job of highlighting the three competing national security policy philosophies, as a lead up to the debate.  The interventionist policies espoused by Marco Rubio, the non-interventionism of Rand Paul, and the third way as argued for by Ted Cruz, were explained by the CR Editors.

The debate, on CNN tonight, was mainly driven by the three competing philosophies and the corresponding candidate who was the standard bearer.  As Rush Limbaugh predicted on his radio show, the main debate focused one on one exchanges between Senators Cruz and Rubio.  

The Cruz and Rubio short series of almost mini debates centered around NSA metadata collection, nation-building, the unseating of dictators, and immigration.  Rubio argued that ground troops were absolutely necessary to defeat ISIS and unseat Assad as dictator of Syria.  Cruz argued that a containment strategy that focused on air power and the use of Sunni allies to defeat ISIS was warranted.  Cruz made a compelling case that the Obama administration was in effect photo-op bombing ISIS by limiting the rules of engagement and completing only about 15 missions a day.

Surprisingly Rand Paul made the most of the last minute lifeline from CNN to remain on stage.  He came out swinging.  Paul attacked Trump, Rubio and Christie on their foreign policy positions.   In addition to reminding the liberty movement why they fell in love with him in the first place, Paul essentially did a lot of Cruz’s dirty work for him.  Paul’s attacks on Trump, not being a serious candidate, allowed Cruz to remain mostly above the fray.  Paul’s pointed attacks on Rubio only buttressed Cruz’s arguments. 

Paul’s most stunning rebuke of the night came against Chris Christie, who had just argued for shooting down Russian planes that violated a hypothetical no-fly zone.  Referring to Christie, Paul said, “if you’re in favor of World War three you have your candidate.”  After a response by Christie, which deflected the assertion and went after Hillary Clinton, Paul followed up with a reference to “Bridgegate.”  It was Paul’s most effective exchange, and actually his most effective debate of the cycle. 

For the most part the debate moderators, CNN’s Wolf Blitzer and Dana Bash, joined by Hugh Hewitt of Salem Media, were respectful and did not try to make themselves the stars of the debate.  One weird departure from this came when Hewitt and Wolf tried to get a series of candidates on the record about whether they would carpet bomb civilians.  It came across as forced, almost as if they were doing the job of Democratic opposition researchers trying to force candidates to choose between being weak on national security or supporting killing innocent civilians.

As for the frontrunner Donald Trump, he continued to be himself.  A strategy that is obviously working, as he has opened up large leads in recent national polling: over thirty percent in the most recent Washington Post/ ABC News survey.  While he was utterly dismissive of Jeb Bush for most of the night, Trump seemed to have mellowed out. He also unequivocally stated, in response to a Hewitt question, that he would not run third party. Trump added that he has come to respect the party leadership and trusts they will run a fair process.

Bush, who struggled to gain some semblance of relevance throughout the evening, did have a good zinger on Trump.  Bush said, “you are not going to be able to insult your way to the presidency.” It was Bush’s only highlight of the night.

Carson’s low key demeanor continues to hurt his candidacy.  He seemed most comfortable in explaining the plight of Syrian refugees. Most probably because he had just been to Syria and saw for himself what was happening on the ground. 

Until Rand’s attack, Chris Christie was having a good night. He made a somewhat convincing case that Senate debating skills were not what was needed in a president.  He laid a clear case for executive action that some voters may find reassuring.

Carly Fiorina and John Kasich were afterthoughts for much of the debate.  When Fiorina did speak, she used her time to attack both parties for decades of inaction.   

Kasich seemed to be out of his league during the debate and did very little to project himself as a commander in chief. 

Grading the debate, Trump and Cruz were winners in that they didn’t lose.  Marco Rubio did not land enough punches on Cruz to chip away at his lead, and Rand Paul ran an effective blocking scheme for Cruz whether he meant to or not. 

Paul was the standout of the night based on his ability to land substantive blows on Trump, Christie, and Rubio.  The main stream, and most “conservative media pundits,” will most likely try and label Rubio as the winner, as he’s the establishment’s last hope.  This line from Rand Paul demonstrates the soft underbelly of Rubio, “Marco has more of an allegiance to Chuck Schumer and liberals, than conservative policies.”  That was a body blow to Rubio and effectively put the Florida Senator in a corner where many primary voters will have to think twice about a Rubio candidacy.

Robert Eno is the Director of Research for Conservative Review and also is a Contributor. He is a conservative from deep blue Massachusetts but now lives in Greenville, SC.  He is also a fill in radio host and appears on television.  Follow him @robeno and feel free to email him at