Hewitt: Who really won the Las Vegas debate?

Story highlights

  • With the perspective of 36 hours, the real winner of the debate was the GOP -- and Chris Christie, says Hugh Hewitt
  • He says Jeb Bush came off the floor and his performance signaled he's in the race at least through end of March

Hugh Hewitt is a lawyer, law professor, author and host of a nationally syndicated radio show. He served in the Reagan administration in posts including assistant counsel in the White House and special assistant to two attorneys general. The opinions expressed in this commentary are his.

(CNN)How you view a debate depends greatly on where you watched it from and who you watched it with, whether you were at home, on the move, or following it via Twitter. The commentary and spin in the aftermath also bend the conclusions of every viewer, whether we realize it or not.

I again had the seat that was both the best and worst in the world. With the debating GOP contenders a few feet in front of Dana Bash and me, we saw the whole show close up, but saw none of the split screens, nothing of the Twitter battle, and had little to go on but our asides to each other. But with the distance of 36 hours and a hundred articles and a dozen post-debate television appearances, here are my takeaways:
Hugh Hewitt
The GOP won. That's because (1) CNN built the right team again, (2) Donald Trump built the audience to another dizzying height and (3) the candidates got to talk about the most important issues that a commander in chief must deal with daily. For several hours, we got a revealing window into the way each candidate would approach the job.
    Donald Trump, still the best interview in the world, won't be scored on this card. He competes in a different event, against himself really. His support will not be moved or shattered by a debate performance. He delivered a passionate appeal for a return to an age of American strength and did so with his trademark authenticity and extremely practiced, competent performance chops. He is without a precedent and so his political career will continue to follow its own course as his candidacy rumbles through America. Trump gets a bye to the finals though he comes to every tournament just for the fun of the show. Is his appeal to GOP primary voters lasting? We'll find out in February.
    Among the not-Trumps, New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie seemed to me to be the clear winner of the night. He came off direct, focused, in command, and up to the job of first beating former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and then moving confidently to assembling and leading a team to extricate America from the deep morass into which President Obama and Ms. Clinton led it both at home and abroad. Christie is direct, informed, comfortable and, crucially, authentically, passionately committed to American leadership in a very dangerous world.
    Former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush got up off the floor and unleashed many punches that connected, displaying again the old Bush willingness to go the distance. Some had wondered whether Tuesday night was his last chance. If it was, Jeb took it. He is back in contention through the end of March at least.
    Sens. Ted Cruz and Marco Rubio belong on the winners' stand with shared Bronzes, though they pummeled each other in a preview of coming attractions. They are the future of the GOP, both immensely talented communicators and gifted, first generation Americans in touch with powerful core constituencies in the GOP base. Both have ample funds and energy.
    No one lost, though Carly Fiorina and Ohio Gov. John Kasich, at the far end of the stage from Bash and me, but right in front of the very professional Wolf Blitzer could not break through Tuesday night.
    Fiorina, with her command of the technology edge that Islamist terrorists are exploiting, has the best training to answer the most devilishly troubling anxieties plaguing the electorate. Kasich has the long years of Republican Party leadership that might have served as a catapult to a victory in other cycles. They will not leave the field but they need "moments," and neither got one on Tuesday night.
    Dr. Ben Carson, already plummeting in the polls as Americans focus on the realities of the world, is the nicest man on the stage, a sort of saint and conscience. He will be a figure of influence for some time in GOP politics, but his path to the nomination is hard to see.
    Sen. Rand Paul is a unique player, the anti-Trump, and his passionate, articulate defense of constitutionalism earned him at least one more round of looks from the anti-big government purists of the tea party movement that elected him.
    In the undercard, Lindsey Graham shone as a dedicated, conscientious man, a patriot, a serious, fine public servant, deeply -- genuinely -- worried that the country does not know what it faces.
    Rick Santorum remains the man whose views most closely resemble my own, but the clock is ticking. Had he foresworn his Senate run in '06 and sought the presidency in 2008 ... but now, it will be harder and harder to hold his Iowa faithful. But Rick Santorum is not for quitting.
    Former Govs. Mike Huckabee and George Pataki are good men. But I do not think they will carry the campaigns forward much beyond the end of Bowl Season.
    So that's where we sit at the end of debate week. Eighteen million people watched CNN on their sets, millions more online and via the Salem Media Group. And now they will talk about it all over Christmas dinner and New Year's Eve toasts.
    I called it the Christmas Dinner Debate all week and it will turn out to be that in fact. Will those family discussions scramble the race? Come January, we'll find out.