During Tuesday’s GOP presidential debate, Fox Business Network moderators often referred to Facebook data as a barometer of voters’ views on the issues.
But if the moderators were to cut to a different screen showing the Republican candidates who voters were more likely to support after the debate, they would get a different sort of answer: It’s complicated.
After the Fox Business Network/Wall Street Journal debate, which occurred less than 90 days before the Iowa caucuses, the Republican presidential nomination fight is more competitive than ever. The front-runners are no longer impermeable, and the middle tier of Republican candidates is more jumbled. In short, the field is flatter.
This was supposed to be a debate that showed whether retired neurosurgeon Ben Carson could survive his questionable statements about his background (he did). It was also supposed to show whether former Florida governor Jeb Bush could launch his comeback campaign (well, he survived). And it was supposed to put moderators on the spot, demonstrating whether they could host a serious and policy-oriented debate (they did).
Overall, the debate was also relatively unexciting — not exactly a word used to describe the 15-person GOP field running for president in 2016. As a result, the ratings might not be excellent, but the dynamics of the field have shifted into an overall more competitive race for the Republican nomination.
Chris Christie is angling for John Kasich’s spot on the stage
While New Jersey Governor Chris Christie would have preferred to be on the main debate stage, he showed Tuesday that he did not belong at the undercard table. And that timing could not be better for him.
For example, during the undercard debate, Louisiana Governor Bobby Jindal knocked Christie on the importance of conservative principles over electability. It is an argument that might have worked for Jindal two months ago. But today, with former secretary of state Hillary Clinton as the Democratic front-runner, electability is beginning to matter. For his part, Christie mentioned Clinton’s name more than a dozen times during the debate.
An hour later, Ohio Governor John Kasich backed increasing the minimum wage, bailing out big banks, and allowing 11 million illegal immigrants to stay in the country. It is hard to see how many Republicans will go along with the sentiments.
Marco Rubio is moving into the top tier
While the outsider wing of the GOP field — Carson and Donald Trump — has been defined for some time, it’s remained unclear who is the top choice of party insiders. That will likely change soon based on another solid performance from Senator Marco Rubio.
Rubio has been rising in the polls, and given the arrows aimed at him Tuesday night, his rivals agree he is their new top competition. He may not have delivered a knockout punch at the debate, but his performance proved superior to other candidates liked by GOP insiders, including Bush and Kasich.
There's still a chance for an anti-Rubio candidate to emerge
There are three lanes now for candidates in this GOP field: outsider, insider, and conservative firebrand.
Until this debate, Senator Ted Cruz was the clear choice for conservative firebrand. But Senator Rand Paul had his best moments of any debate so far Tuesday, and now he might challenge Cruz for that mantle. To be sure, Cruz is still leading this lane, but he no longer has it to himself.
Carson and Trump struggle with details on policy, and it could be their downfall
In recent weeks, Carson has challenged Trump for the national front-runner status, but neither candidate looked like he deserved that title on Tuesday when probed about their policy plans.
Even if some Republicans believed Carson’s reference to the 200 abortions that occurred during the two-hour debate, he offered no solution on what to do about that (or military suicides or drug overdoses he also mentioned).
Trump essentially told the audience to trust him on economics. But he found himself out of step with the Republican base when it came to his position on Russia’s role in Syria.
There is a month before the next Republican debate. Until then, the front-runner spot will probably be up for grabs, insiders are on track to side with Rubio, conservatives will battle over their pick, and the remaining field will fight for attention, including an improving Christie, a pointed former Hewlett-Packard CEO Carly Fiorina, and a well-funded Bush.
Buckle your seat belts.