The final weeks leading up to the Iowa caucuses are some of the ugliest in American electoral politics. This homestretch acts as a figurative "thinning of the herd" for the presidential primary field: Campaign ads turn brutally negative, and candidates start swinging wildly, diving deep into their opposition files in the hopes of convincing a handful of Midwesterners to make them the party's presidential nominee.
This desperation was on full display Thursday night, when Republicans met for the sixth official primary debate, hosted by Fox Business Network and the Wall Street Journal in North Charleston, South Carolina. After spending the past several weeks one-upping one another on the campaign trail, the presidential hopefuls—minus the three kiddie-table debaters, and Rand Paul, who boycotted the event—took the main stage ready to claw each other's eyes out with the nearest rusty spoon.
As always it's hard to say who "won" the debate. But shit did get pretty dark—and not a little bit weird—as the candidates responded to this week's rosy State of the Union address, scrambling over each other to explain why they alone are best are equipped to neutralize the myriad threats facing the post-Obama America. Here's what went down.
Texas Senator Ted Cruz
What he needed to do: Since the new year began, and indeed long before that, Cruz has been on a mission to win the Iowa caucuses. In the past two weeks, he's taken a bus tour across the state, aggressively courting the evangelical vote and trying his damnedest to suck away support from Donald Trump. His efforts are starting to show in the polls—but with just over two weeks until Iowans cast their votes, Cruz needed to hammer in his message Thursday night, and hold his own against the unshakeable GOP frontrunner.
What he did: It wasn't Cruz's best debate. Faced with routine questions from the Fox Business moderators, Cruz delivered his usual stare-at-the-camera right-wing soundbites about "utterly destroying radical Islamic terrorists" and "breaking up the Washington cartel," but said nothing particularly remarkable or new. Overall, though, the Texas Senator did fine, successfully casting himself as anti-Washington, anti-elite, and a Michael Bay fan. #Benghazi
The highlight, for Cruz, came during his surprisingly heated exchange with Trump over the Texas Senator's Canadian birthplace. "Well Neil, I'm glad we're focusing on the important topics this evening," Cruz sneered at moderator Neil Cavuto, before deftly turning the tables, suggesting that real birthers would have a problem with Trump and any other 2016 candidates with a parent who wasn't born in the United States.
Of course, no one, even birthers, actually takes this view. But the suggestion had the intended effect of putting Trump on defense, forcing the frontrunner to rattle off legal arguments over boos from the crowd, while Cruz watched, smiling smugly, from the next podium.
What he needed to do: Be Trump.
What he did: By now, it should go without saying that how Trump performs at these debates—let alone what he says about Chinese trade—means nothing, at least as it relates to his standing in the Republican race. But Thursday was the first in which Trump's standing as a Republican candidate—and the party's 2016 frontrunner—wasn't on the table during a primary debate.
Once an accepted kernel of conventional wisdom, the idea that Trump somehow exists outside the GOP—and might therefore be disposed of by the party elite—now seems wholly irrelevant, if not absurd. Trump maintains a massive lead in both national and early state polls, and a growing number of Republicans—65 percent, according to the latest NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll—now say they would vote for him if he is the party's nominee in November.
The primary debate finally seemed to catch on to this political reality Thursday. For the first time this election cycle, moderators did not raise questions about Trump's conservative bonafides, or ask if he would still consider running as an independent should things fail to work out with the GOP. And for the first time, the candidate himself seemed to be genuinely committed to being on stage, interjecting on policy questions about trade, and defending himself against critics by insisting that he is "very angry" about the state of the country.
Florida Senator Marco Rubio
What he needed to do: For many in the GOP Establishment, Rubio is the ideal candidate for 2016—a young, almost Obama-like fresh face, gazing out at a "New American Century." But Rubio continues to lag behind in polls, and Thursday was his chance to change that before Republicans start casting their ballots next month.
What he did: Rubio came out strong Thursday, attacking Clinton on Benghazi and fine-tuning some of his criticisms of Obama's foreign policy. Expecting attacks from his primary opponents—which, for the most part, never materialized—Rubio was clearly well-briefed to counter with some jabs of his own. His accusation that Cruz is a flip-flopper, for instance, seemed to stick, and his claim that Chris Christie once wrote a check to Planned Parenthood prompted some curious Google searches.
But then, as he has in previous debates, Rubio slowed, his initial energy fading into something more formulaic, and revealing the vulnerabilities that continue to hurt his candidacy going into the final weeks before the primaries.
Dr. Ben Carson
What he needed to do: Stay awake. What he did: At this point, Carson is just along for the ride at these things. So rather than try to figure out what the fuck Carson was talking about Thursday night, we opted to just sit back, relax, and—in the neurosurgeon's words—smoke our cigars like the ISIS fighters "sitting in their comfortable chairs in Raqqa." Because none of what Carson says matters at this point, and all of it is gold. New Jersey Governor Chris Christie
What he needed to do: With his national polling numbers stuck in the single digits, Christie has gone all in on New Hampshire, in the hopes that a win in the first-in-the-country primary state will revive his chances in the national race. So while the rest of the Republican candidates directed themselves to Iowa Thursday night, Christie's task was simply to maintain relevance in what is quickly becoming a two-way race between Trump and Cruz. What he did: Christie managed to work himself up nicely. He basically yelled each one of his responses, bullying his political opponents with one-liners like, "We're going to kick your rear end of the White House!" and, "You had your chance Marco, and you blew it!" (The former was directed at Obama; the latter was a shot at Rubio on a question about entitlement reform). Christie's dismissal of Obama as a "petulant child" may not have been as harsh as the "feckless weakling" charge he made during the last debate, but the overall point was just as clear: The New Jersey Governor is going to keep shouting and shoving to stay in this race. Ohio Governor John Kasich
What he needed to do: Somehow become someone whose name is not John Kasich. What he did: More or less every time Kasich is asked a question during these debates, he responds by saying something about balancing the budget—in DC and Ohio—and about the need for America to "unify." Rarely does Kasich get around to answering the actual question posed. He stuck to that format Thursday, deviating briefly to reassure viewers that Bernie Sanders "will never be president." But after last night's performance, we can once again state with confidence that neither will Kasich. Jeb! Bush
What he needed to do: Survive. What he did: Got into another fight with Trump. After showing restraint for most of the debate, Jeb! couldn't resist going after the frontrunner again, this time over Trump's calls for Muslim immigration ban and a China tariff. Trump called Jeb! weak. Jeb! called Trump reckless. Both of them made some strange facial gestures. And just like that, the most painful political stage drama of 2015 was dragged, lifeless, into the New Year. Follow John Surico on Twitter.