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OpinionColumnistsMichael Dobie

What made this GOP debate different

Republican presidential candidate U.S. Sen. Ted Cruz, center,

Republican presidential candidate U.S. Sen. Ted Cruz, center, speaks as Donald Trump and Jeb Bush listen during the CNN Republican presidential debate in Las Vegas on Wednesday, Dec. 15, 2015. Credit: Getty Images / Justin Sullivan

The subject for much of the Republican presidential debate Tuesday night was the war against the Islamic State. But the real battle was among the candidates, who directed much of the sniping at each other.
Yes, the insult-free zone in place for the last debate among the candidates disappeared in Las Vegas and pretty much everyone except the rapidly fading Ben Carson was fair game — the hunter, the hunted, or both.
As tiresome as that has become, it wasn’t as stressful as trying to find something new in terms of policies or philosophies espoused by the nine people on the stage. We’ve been over this ground with these candidates so many times.
The difference this time was the backdrop. This was the first presidential debate since the terrorist attacks in Paris and San Bernardino. And the mission for all clearly was to project strength — playing both to this fraught moment and to the polling reality that voters find front-runner Donald Trump best embodies that quality.
So there was lots of fire and smoke but what did they really say?
We heard various proposals for ground troops and bombing and no-fly zones and tougher talk but no acknowledgement that there really are no good options for dealing with ISIS. If there were, they would have been tried already. Deploying lots of ground troops hasn’t worked out well when we’ve done that in the Middle East. Carpet bombing, Sen. Ted Cruz’s strategy, also kills lots of civilians.
And we’re bombing already. A no-fly zone does not directly affect ISIS, which has no planes. As for forming a coalition army made up mostly of Arab nations, they have good reasons for not engaging ISIS, which is why they’re not doing it now.
It was a slugfest without a knockout, but plenty of in-close exchanges as candidates emphasized their background and experience — and their opponents’ lack of same.
Trump and Jeb Bush mixed it up, as they have before, but more pointedly this time, with the former Florida governor saying, “Donald, you’re not going to be able to insult your way to the presidency.” Trump, naturally, cited their respective polling positions, which he put at 42-3.
Sen. Rand Paul joined Bush in saying Trump was not a serious candidate, and there was plenty of evidence given The Donald’s proposals to ban Muslims, shut down parts of the Internet, and kill the families of terrorists. Paul also memorably went after New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie as being the World War III candidate, while throwing in a snarky Bridgegate reference.
As predicted by their rise in the polls, Sens. Cruz and Marco Rubio went after each other — aided and abetted by CNN’s questioners — on several topics, including immigration, defense cuts and NSA collection of metadata.
Christie criticized legislators in general for debating about how many angels are on the head of a pin without ever having had to make an executive decision (which he has done, of course).
And former Hewlett Packard chief executive Carly Fiorina tried to shout over one dispute that these kinds of contretemps are not helpful. That was rich given the unprovoked zinger in her opening statement: She said the country does not need entertainers who throw out sound bites, a not-so-veiled reference to Trump.
But perhaps the oddest part of the proceedings was the looming specter of Chuck Schumer, the senior Democratic senator from New York. This was his debut in the debate season, and his name came up several times. Mostly, this was in relation to the Gang of Eight immigration bill he and Rubio worked on. Invoking Schumer seemed to be recognition that Rubio’s numbers are getting stronger and one way to blunt that is to link him with a hated Democrat. And it doesn’t hurt that Schumer is slated to become the party’s leader in the Senate when Harry Reid leaves.
There was some entertainment value in all that, but in the end, it’s hard to say what, if anything, had changed. Trump seems likely to remain on top, with Rubio and Cruz battling to see who is best positioned to step up if Trump falls. The rest are throwing haymakers and looking to get lucky.