Marco Rubio looked rattled, Ted Cruz appeared on the defensive and Chris Christie and Jeb Bush were more energetic and effective than perhaps ever before as the Republican presidential candidates battled Saturday in the final debate before the New Hampshire primary.
Donald Trump? He returned to the stage after skipping the previous GOP debate and was more restrained but had scrapes with Bush and Cruz. By and large, he wasn’t pummeled by opponents this time.
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Ohio Gov. John Kasich, running third in some New Hampshire polls, made his pitch as the center-right candidate who could win the general election because he could win swing voters. Former neurosurgeon Ben Carson seemed to score his biggest points when he criticized Cruz’s campaign for spreading rumors that he was about to drop out.
Moderated by ABC News, it was a debate that was spirited but without some of the bombast from previous forums.
At St. Anselm College in Manchester, New Hampshire’s largest city, the debate allowed the candidates to make one last big impression before Tuesday, when the Granite State holds the nation’s first presidential primary.
Christie, the New Jersey governor, made an impact when he ridiculed, then seemed to rattle Rubio, the Florida senator, by pointing out that he repeatedly avoided answering questions and instead responded with stump speeches.
The exchange began when Christie said Rubio, as a first-term senator, “simply doesn’t have the experience to do the job.”
Rubio began by deriding New Jersey’s credit rating but segued into a stump speech attack on President Barack Obama and closed with stating the United States was the greatest country in the world.
Christie seized the moment. “That was a drive-by shot, a misdirection, then a memorized 25-second speech,” he said. “That’s what Washington, D.C. does. . . . When you talk about how great America is, it doesn’t solve one problem.”
Accused of repeating talking points, Rubio did so twice more. Even the crowd booed when he did so a third time.
“There it is, the 25-second memorized speech,” Christie said. “Marco Rubio is a gifted, gifted politician . . . but we tried it the old way with Barack Obama and soaring rhetoric.”
Cruz was on the defensive for spreading the rumor that Carson was dropping out amid the Iowa caucuses last week. He blamed a CNN report that said only that Carson wasn’t going immediately to New Hampshire.
First Carson, then CNN, countered Cruz’s narrative.
Carson noted CNN sent out a tweet one minute after its first report clarifying that he wasn’t dropping out.
“Everyone can see what happened and make your own judgment,” Carson said.
Cruz also was on the defensive about attacking Trump on the campaign trail, and when he was pressed to square his previous remarks about “carpet bombing” the Islamic State group and making strategic strikes.
Kasich, Christie and Bush — the three governors in the GOP race — seemed to give stronger answers about fixing problems. Kasich and Christie are especially trying to appeal to independent voters who, under New Hampshire’s rules, can cast ballots in the primary.
“We have to remember we are Americans before we are Republicans or we are Democrats,” Kasich said.
He pitched himself as conservative who could forge legislation with Democrats.
Along with Bush, Kasich was the most moderate on immigration, calling for some sort of legal status short of citizenship for immigrants living in the country illegally. He also called for helping the mentally ill and drug addicts.
Trump earned boos when he tried to “shhh” Bush in an exchange over eminent domain. Trump said the practice was necessary to build highways, schools and hospitals. But when Bush jumped in and said Trump tried to use it to force an “elderly” woman out of her home for a casino parking lot, Trump said: “Let me talk, quiet.”
That got the crowd on Bush’s side and it booed Trump.
“That’s his donors,” Trump said of the audience. “The reason they’re not loving me is I don’t want their money.”