From the opening bell until the closing round, the candidates took heavy swings at each other, sometimes connecting, more often missing in the flurried exchanges. And perhaps due to some last-minute desperation, the disagreements on stage occasionally veered from heated to embarrassing.
For three of the four candidates, the sense of urgency was palpable. In the aftermath of Super Tuesday, Donald Trump's campaign has been elevated from frontrunner to almost inevitable status. Marco Rubio and Ted Cruz know the clock is ticking, and so they tossed everything they had at Trump.
John Kasich tried to stand apart -- and above -- the fray, focusing on his "aw shucks" "let's fix it" policy proposals instead of personal swipes. For his part, The Donald appeared to revel in his role at the bottom of the debate pile on, where fair play (and facts) become quick casualties.
How Rubio helped Cruz
Overall Cruz had the strongest night, in no small part because Rubio kept Trump locked in a constant tussle. By contrast, this helped Cruz appear mature and policy-focused for a majority of his speaking time. His answer on the Flint water crisis -- prefaced with a fusillade against decades of Democratic misgovernment in Michigan -- was among the night's most memorable. And when Cruz chided The Donald to "count to 10" during one of Trump's frequent interruptions, it was all too clear who was playing the role of adult in the room on that debate stage.
Rubio's voice was hoarse (he appeared to be fighting off a cold) but his strategy was the same as in the last debate: attack Trump. This assault resulted in some comic and -- even by Trumpian standards -- undignified moments, including a brief, bizarre interlude into Trump's anatomical self-esteem.
Despite a lot of crosstalk and jabs that mostly missed the mark on both sides, Rubio was able to score a major hit against Trump on the issue of the Trump University lawsuit. Rubio framed the issue as Trump the con artist bilking working people out of their money. With an assist from a well-prepared Megyn Kelly as moderator, Rubio made sure Trump was unable to escape the trap.
Of course, Trump exuded his usual bravado and bluster, promised repeatedly to bring back jobs, make America great again -- the usual crowd pleasers for Trump supporters. Fellow candidates and even the moderators at times tried to keep him on the defensive, but Trump held his ground, and as usual, maintained his place at the center of attention. For his purposes, at this point in the game, that may have been enough.
A good outing for Kasich
Campaign viability aside, Kasich had a pretty strong night, touting his record of balancing the federal budget while in Congress and even making a short but conservative-sounding case for school choice and charter programs. It was a fine audition for the bottom of another candidate's ticket. That said, Kasich staying in the race now is only marginally more defensible than Dr. Ben Carson lingering on -- which is to say, it's time for the good governor to step aside.
Regardless of winners and losers, at this late stage of the race, a debate performance is unlikely to close major gaps between the candidates. Trump needs only to stay the course, and if he has a strong showing on March 15th, he will almost certainly be the GOP nominee. Barring some sort of Rubio-Cruz pact, Kasich dropping out, and perhaps an unforeseeable political catastrophe for Trump, the Republican nominee will be decided soon, and his first name will be Donald.