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Presidential Horse Race 2016: Fox Business Network delivers on promise for substantive, meaningful debate

Fresh off the contentious CNBC debate two weeks ago, Republican presidential race watchers were anxious to see if the problems that arose from the first three debates would materialize once again in Milwaukee.

They didn’t, at least where the debate hosts were concerned.

Fox Business debateDebate moderators (Fox Business Network anchors Maria Bartiromo and Neil Cavuto and Wall Street Journal editor-in-chief Gerard Baker) were largely on their toes throughout the evening and tried hard to stay out of the discussion.

At times, it almost seemed like they were a little too deferential. The kid-gloves treatment didn’t quite rise to the level of the love-fests seen in Democrat forums, but Tuesday night’s debate was the polar opposite of the tense back-and-forth we’ve seen from the major media up to this point.

Overall, the debate flowed somewhat better than the previous three, mostly because the candidates were allowed 90 seconds to answer questions and the moderators didn’t preface each query with “Your opponents say you’re an awful person. Stare directly at them and tell them why they’re worse than you.”

With a semi-strict two-hour time limit (and the longer answers), naturally there were fewer questions. That helped keep it tame, but I’m not sure conservative voters benefitted by allowing the candidates more opportunity to spew out talking points on a narrower range of issues.

The candidates were also allowed 30-second closing statements which several of them stretched out to exceed the limit.

In other words, it was pretty standard political debate fare.

Happy Hour debate needs a good drink special to stay in business

The undercard “debate” was equally civilized, though Bobby Jindal did channel Ted Cruz in challenging a moderator’s question regarding “name one Democrat in Washington you admire.”

Jindal didn’t answer the question and neither did Mike Huckabee or Chris Christie when given the chance. Rick Santorum actually looked good in saying he admired all the Democrats in Washington because they actually fight for what they believe in.

Good answer, Rick. Santorum also had a good response in bringing in the need to address the deterioration of the American family if we’re ever going to improve the country.

But overall, Bobby Jindal was the “winner” of the early debate, simply because he’s the most policy specific and the only one consistently willing to criticize the big government, big spending elements of both parties.

“Let’s not be a second liberal party,” he said. Jindal claimed he is the only candidate in the race who’s actually cut spending. He might be right, but some of the senators have tried even to the point of shutting down the federal government.

Huckabee responded to Jindal by saying everyone has “cut some things.” Weak.

Chris Christie, time and again, steered the conversation towards attacking Hillary and Obama. It sounds great – and he has a point – but we’re not getting much differentiation from him on why he should be president.

We all know Hillary shouldn’t be president. Unfortunately, we can’t do anything about Obama anymore.

It looks like Jindal’s strategy was to try and set himself apart. I don’t think he did it, but then again, neither did Santorum, Christie and Huckabee.

Will there be another undercard debate next month? Who knows. But the lower-tier candidates certainly don’t seem to be making much of a difference anymore.

Ben Carson passes the credibility test

Going into the evening, all eyes were on Ben Carson for several reasons. First, because he passed Donald Trump in several recent national polls, making him the de facto Republican race leader (though he’s since surrendered back the advantage in the Real Clear Politics average).

Second, to see if the media generated storm over half-century old details of his background would generate discussion during the debate. Would his opponents see it as an opportunity to try and dent his sterling reputation as an honest and trustworthy man?

Finally, to look for evidence that Carson can handle the biggest job in the world from a policy standpoint. Certainly in the first three debates Ben got through by presenting various aspects of his resume, arguing he’s a smart guy and basically asking people to trust him.

On question number one, his opponents laid off of him. The few terse exchanges that occurred between candidates didn’t even involve Ben.

In fact, there were few direct body blows against Trump either. Because the moderators kept the discussion focused on taxes, big banks, trade and numbers, there was very little room to take off on personal vendettas against their fellow candidates.

Carly Fiorina did criticize Rand Paul on foreign policy, though it was a respectful disagreement rather than a desperate attempt to damage him.

On point two, Carson was asked about the controversy swirling around the contradictions in his statements about his past. He replied, “Thank you for not asking me what I said in the 10th grade.” Ben then talked about how every candidate should be vetted and he didn’t mind that part of the process.

“But I do mind being lied about.”

I think the issue was over right there. It didn’t come up again and it’s doubtful the matter will surface in the future – at least until the next time the media thinks it’s finally found something that traps him in a fib.

On the substantive final point, Carson earns a passing grade. He explained that his tax plan is really about proportionality and rich people would be paying the same proportion as poor people – but the amounts paid would be vastly different.

Carson also effectively mentioned that he cares about the poor and they’d be given special consideration in his administration.

Ben did well to answer the challenge. We’ll see if the people see it the same way.

Ted Cruz shores up the conservative vote

Another theme going into the evening concerned Ted Cruz. Cruz, of course, had a breakout moment in the CNBC debate by challenging the moderators over their “cage match” tone and lack of respect and substance in their inquiries.

For that moment and other reasons, Cruz is seen as being on the rise in the Republican race.

Niall Stanage of The Hill writes on why the Cruz campaign is so confident. “They argue he could attract the support of trailing, right-wing candidates who may drop out — such as former Sen. Rick Santorum (Pa.) or former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee — while also picking off Trump and Carson backers who get cold feet about their lack of political experience.”

This has become the conventional wisdom, that Cruz will ultimately end up as the conservative alternative to the inevitable emergence of the establishment candidate (which many now argue will be Marco Rubio).

Cruz turned in another strong showing on Tuesday night, making salient points on immigration and cutting the size of government.

On immigration, Cruz steered the conversation away from whether it’s practical to deport millions of people. Instead, Ted talked about who’s hurt most by illegal immigration – the people who work in jobs threatened by the newcomers.

“If a bunch of lawyers or bankers were crossing the Rio Grande, you wouldn’t have all the outcry against illegal immigration.” The audience laughed. “We’re tired of being told that enforcing the laws of our country are anti-immigrant,” Cruz added. The onlookers exploded in agreement.

Later on, Cruz talked about the parts of government that he’d cut, naming specifics and referring people to his campaign website for further details. And then came a moment of brilliance – “I would eliminate sugar subsidies to pay for the military.”

This was a direct poke at Marco Rubio who’s enjoyed a very cozy relationship with sugar growers in Florida. They contribute to his campaign and he supports price controls and protectionism on sugar.

Once again, Cruz is a very smart guy. When he says he’s against cronyism and corruption, he means it. I think he’ll only continue to grow in popularity as the race goes on.

Seeing the gentler side of Donald Trump

Going into the debate, we thought it was almost certain Donald Trump would jab at Marco Rubio – especially on immigration. After all, he’d done it only a few hours before.

David Wright of CNN reports Trump tweeted on Monday night, “Marco Rubio is a total lightweight who I wouldn't hire to run one of my smaller companies -- a highly overrated politician!”

And, “Marco Rubio couldn't even respond properly to President Obama's State of the Union Speech without pouring sweat & chugging water. He choked!”

Lastly, “Marco Rubio is totally weak on illegal immigration & in favor of easy amnesty. A lightweight choker -- bad for #USA!”

Perhaps Trump was singling out Rubio because he sees the Florida senator as a threat in New Hampshire. Or maybe it’s because The Donald is laying the groundwork to take out the most likely establishment threat.

Whatever the reason, we saw nothing of the sort when the two were face-to-face on Tuesday night. The immigration topic only came up a couple times and Rubio didn’t even have to answer on it. Trump once again reiterated that he would build a beautiful wall and that everyone who is here illegally would have to go back before hoping to return and stay here permanently.

Is this an extension of the “self-deport” argument that Mitt Romney made four years ago?

Looney John Kasich and Jeb Bush advanced the “it’s not practical to break up families” argument, with Bush even uttering the “legalization” word in his segment.

Trump didn’t seem bothered when challenged on his ideas. And he didn’t really cut into his opponents, either – except for one backhand at John Kasich. “You’re lucky that you struck oil in Ohio.”

His final memorable moment involved a passionate plea against the Trans Pacific Partnership, which he described as a “horrible deal.”

Donald Trump isn’t given enough credit for his political skills. Sure, his celebrity had a lot to do with his position in the polls, but people like him because he speaks with authority on issues like immigration, trade and American greatness.

Populism has its place and Trump knows exactly where that is. Dare we say he looked “presidential” on Tuesday night?

Rubio and Bush ignore each other

Many who endured the CNBC debate thought Marco Rubio was the “winner,” primarily because of his bare-knuckled retort to Jeb Bush’s assertion that the younger Floridian was delinquent in his duty to service constituents of their home state.

All agreed it was a premeditated cheap shot from Jeb that fell flat and provided a triumphant moment for Rubio to look strong and confident at the same time.

Well, we found out early Tuesday Rubio wasn’t about to let Bush get the better of him this time, either. Al Weaver of the Washington Examiner reports, “Marco Rubio launched a preemptive strike against Jeb Bush Tuesday with a new ad featuring the many instances of the former governor showering praise on his fellow Floridian.

“The web ad, titled ‘Before the phony attacks,’ features four separate examples of Bush lauding Rubio over the years…Except for Rubio saying he ‘approves this message,’ Bush is the sole narrator of the ad.”

Bush’s advisors are apparently seething over Rubio’s rise.

But if they intended their candidate to go after Rubio in the debate, it didn’t materialize. Jeb was largely absent from this event, which must be incredibly frustrating to all his donors and establishment backers.

He babbled incoherently through an answer on whether he would bailout big banks. He spoke about staying involved in the Middle East, basically restating his brother’s policy… and we all know how that story turns out.

For his part, Rubio doesn’t appear to even notice Jeb anymore. Marco is too busy rapidly spitting out sweet sounding rhetoric to bother with the stumbling verbal train wreck that is Jeb Bush. Rubio draws rave reviews because he knows how to condense the American Dream down to a few sentences.

Jeb doesn’t look like he even knows what that is – but then again, how could he?

Jeb was irrelevant before Tuesday night and it looks like he’s going to leave his talking to his new TV ads.

Concluding with a note on foreign policy

As the last candidate on stage, Rand Paul isn’t given many opportunities to speak or stand out. He’s become so attenuated to the race that even Donald Trump ignores him now.

But Paul brought up several excellent points in Tuesday night’s debate, namely, "how can you be conservative and support blowing the budget on excessive military spending?"

Paul went so far as to say Marco Rubio’s call for big military spending wasn’t conservative. Rubio then called Paul an “isolationist.”

Carly Fiorina (who turned in another strong performance) also took issue with Paul’s notion that America should stay diplomatically engaged with everyone, including our enemies.

Jeb Bush said it was vital to stay involved in the Middle East. So did John Kasich. And on and on and on.

I’ve said it many times before: Rand Paul offers the only real alternative to the now dominant neoconservative wing of the GOP, except for maybe Donald Trump and Ben Carson. Trump seems content with having the Russians take out ISIS. Carson hesitates when talking about committing military troops, but it’s clear he’s not as hawkish as the rest.

With America in such horrible financial shape, who’s right?

Everyone agrees America needs a strong national defense – they’re just not sure how to go about it.

Just one more question to ponder heading into the latter part of November. The time is coming soon to get serious – and it appears as though the candidates are already there.

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