Critic's Notebook: Rivals Feast on Rubio at GOP Debate

Republican Debate 2-6-16  - H 2016
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Republican Debate 2-6-16  - H 2016

The protracted fight between the rising Rubio and the desperate Christie was the highlight of the latest Republican debate.

It's tempting to compare Saturday night's GOP debate to The Hunger Games, but that really wouldn't be fair: The Hunger Games was far less violent.

The debate, held three days before the crucial New Hampshire primary, made the previous events seem like church socials. And why not? The stakes have gotten much, much higher, with Ted Cruz winning the Iowa caucuses even while being accused of dirty tricks; Marco Rubio declaring victory even though he came in third; Donald Trump — yes, he's back — threatening to sue (what else is new?); and the governors' troika of Jeb Bush, John Kasich and Chris Christie fighting for their political lives. As for Ben Carson, well, he certainly looked dapper in the "fresh set of clothes," as his campaign put it, that he recently picked up from his Florida home.

Speaking of Carson, what in the world was up with him during the candidates' introductions? Apparently either confused or miffed at the order, he simply refused to go onstage, with a stage manager desperately trying to wave him forward. Then Trump decided to hang with him, and for the longest time it seemed as if they were both going to blow off the event and go out for beers.

Now that such candidates as Rick Santorum, Rand Paul and Mike Huckabee have dropped out, there was no preceding undercard debate. Not that one was needed, since more than half of the people onstage tonight were the undercard.  

The evening began in relatively conciliatory fashion, with Trump refusing to counterattack Cruz for the comment that he would "nuke Denmark." Then, Carson, when asked about the Cruz campaign's dissemination of false information that he had quit the race, merely said that he was "very disappointed." A contrite Cruz blamed CNN for the snafu before turning to Carson and, mustering his most sincere insincere tone, said, "Ben, I'm sorry."

But it wasn't long before the gloves came off. Rubio, who might as well have been wearing a target on his back, was asked about his qualifications for the presidency, with moderator David Muir citing Santorum's endorsement, probably the lamest ever in the history of political endorsements. Instead of directly answering the question, Rubio launched an attack on Obama.

And then Christie got all medieval on his ass. Like a starving pit bull, he bit into Rubio and simply wouldn't let go, citing his missed Senate votes ("That's not leadership, that's truancy"), deriding Rubio's "memorized 25-second speech" and declaring that being a senator doesn't prepare you for the presidency.

He was certainly right about that 25-second speech. As if his circuits had blown, Rubio went into a robotic loop, responding to every one of Christie's attacks with another and another attack on Obama, apparently forgetting that the year is 2016, not 2012.  

Trump was uncharacteristically less blustery than usual, with the exception of his response to a question about eminent domain. He launched into a rhapsody about seizure powers that was practically orgasmic, providing Bush the opportunity to attack him for his efforts to use it to evict an elderly woman from her Atlantic City home.

"He wants to be a tough guy," barked Trump, before instructing Bush to be "quiet" as if he was Archie Bunker telling Edith to stifle. The crowd responded with boos, so Trump naturally attacked the crowd, claiming they were all "big donors" and he wanted nothing to do with them. Score that one for Bush, who seemed very high energy.

Trump later delivered another absurd moment when asked about whether the ability to make deals was a good thing in a president. He answered that it would be, the way he did it: "I'll grab 'em, hug 'em, kiss 'em" to get deals done, the Donald cooed.

A question about the possibility of resuming the use of waterboarding naturally raised the testosterone level on the stage. Cruz, after lengthily explaining that it was not really torture but really more like "vigorous interrogation" — don't go looking for classes in that at your local gym — finally admitted that he wouldn't return it to "widespread use," although he looked like he would happily make an exception for his political opponents.

Trump, of course, upped the ante: "I would bring back waterboarding, and I would bring back a whole lot worse," he proclaimed.

When asked about President Obama's executive orders, which he has described as illegal, Cruz defied logic by saying that if elected president he would use the same presumably illegal executive orders to undo Obama's.

When asked a foreign policy question, Carson beamed, joking that "I'm not here just to add beauty to the stage." But if he really wants to burnish his credentials, he might want to learn how to properly pronounce the name of the African country Niger.

After being asked the most important question of the night, namel,y who would win the next day's Super Bowl (Carson said it would be either Denver or Carolina), the candidates delivered their closing statements.

Kasich, who, like his fellow governors, had a stronger night than usual, repeated for maybe the millionth time that he had attended "over 100 town-hall meetings in New Hampshire." Christie followed through on the sucking up, commenting on the "70 days with you" that he's spent in the state, adding "you've gotten to know my heart" like he was on The Dating Game. Bush took the opportunity to celebrate Ronald Reagan's 105th birthday (does he know that "The Gipper" is no longer with us?). Carson, channeling Stephen Sondheim, declared, "I'm still here." Rubio modestly proclaimed that if elected he would be responsible for making America "the single greatest nation in the history of all mankind." Cruz crowed about winning Iowa despite his opposition to the ethanol mandate. But as usual, Trump had the last word. "That's because he [Cruz] got Ben Carson's votes, by the way," he sneered.