The debate Donald Trump skipped had a decent number of fireworks, some ebbs and flows, and a skewed discussion (not one question on the economy, unless I missed it while mulling one of Ben Carson’s interesting locations or trying to catch up with Marco Rubio’s high-speed delivery). But nobody who could have scored a real victory that mattered actually did. Ted Cruz had his worst debate by far, as Megyn Kelly and the other candidates basically called him a slick liar — not what you want when you are trying to convince Iowa evangelicals you are young King Josiah sent to cleanse the land. Speaking of slick: Cruz may have been the champion college debater, but Marco Rubio sounded like one with his determination to pack two minutes of stock speech into every minute of talk. His own flip-flopping on immigration was cast in sharp relief, and his gratuitous shout-outs to Jesus Christ were exceeded only by Cruz’s to Iowa nativist Steve King.
Meanwhile, some of the better performances were by candidates who are going nowhere in Iowa and are struggling to survive in New Hampshire. The last thing the Republican Establishment needs is for Chris Christie or John Kasich to get a second wind, since neither is going to win in New Hampshire or the states immediately following it on the calendar — but could take votes away from a more viable candidate like, say, Marco Rubio. Jeb Bush, who has just enough money left to run another $10 to $20 million in attack ads aimed at Rubio, had a pretty good night, too.
All of this is pretty good news for the guy who wasn’t there. But maybe I’m wrong. As I write this, Frank Luntz has one of his focus groups warbling about Marco Rubio. I seem to recall that Luntz’s focus group after the first Fox News debate thought Megyn Kelly had all but destroyed Donald Trump’s candidacy. So we’ll have to let Monday night’s caucusers have the last word.