Celebrity watchers may have been dismayed that their favorite media sensation skipped the presidential debate. But for those of us who know and care about politics, the absence of Donald Trump was a breath of fresh air, providing all of us with a greater focus on the issues. But the temperamental Trump wasn't the only loser, as some of the GOP candidates stumbled during the Fox News Channel debate.
Trump certainly cost himself the most points in the race. Even though there wasn't an empty podium, everyone could tell who wasn't there. The remaining candidates found a way to keep a few zingers without denigrating a voting bloc. Conservative students are indicating dismay at their hero's retreat from the field of battle.
Trump's decision to host an event opposite of the Fox News Channel debate further magnified the limits of his appeal. I spent commercial breaks surfing with a remote, looking for some channel, any channel, that covered his town hall event. Maybe it was on a cable channel or satellite channel that I don't own, or on a public access channel. It was sad, like seeing a Don Bluth animated film go up against a Disney classic in an ill-conceived battle for moviegoers.
But Trump wasn't the only one who lost ground. Texas Senator Ted Cruz was trapped by other candidates on the immigration issue. He couldn't even effectively blast an absent Trump. Fox News hosts pointed out just how despised he is by his colleagues, not even getting a verbal second on a simple procedural motion. Cruz tried to flip it, claiming he's unpopular because the only one making tough decisions, but being unable to work with others only succeeds in a dictatorship, not a democracy. Even conservatives seem unsure where he really stands on issues.
Ohio Governor John Kasich really had a chance to shine, as polls show him improving at least in New Hampshire, having a real chance to get in the thick of things. He seems to lose focus in his answers, makes analogies that are hard to follow, and doesn't really inspire. Nothing about his style indicates he's even the most effective executive leader. Dr. Ben Carson was his usual, ambiguous self, never demonstrating that he knows more than what he's been coached to say. I think the moderators and audience kind of forgot about him too.
Frank Luntz, the Fox News focus group leader, also weakened himself in his post-debate focus group. He had his group more "coached" than Nick Saban prepares his Alabama football team.
Kentucky Senator Rand Paul got to reprise his role as the smartest person on stage, serving as the GOP politician most likely to have read a bill before commenting or voting on it. One hopes for that reason alone that he's earned himself a spot at future adult-table debates.
Former Florida Governor Jeb Bush had his best performance yet. Maybe he's had time to get over his fears of having to face Trump in person, but his answers on women and minorities led him to reprise the role his brother played: "the compassionate conservative."
Florida Senator Marco Rubio had the most articulate, sharp delivery which showed the best debate style, which effectively distracts viewers from his flip-flops. New Jersey Governor Chris Christie showed a leadership style in his answers which could be a hit with GOP voters, if they'd ever forgive him from once embracing President Barack Obama.
But the biggest winner of the night was Fox News Channel moderator Megyn Kelly. Her tough line of questioning on the candidates showed she wouldn't let anyone off easy, whether the politician's last name was Trump or not. Her use of video to catch candidates was reminiscent of Jon Stewart of the Daily Show, and even, dare I say, Tim Russert? And Trump's absence and subsequent debate interest just reinforced that she got the best of him in this whole affair.
John A. Tures is a professor of political science at LaGrange College in LaGrange, Ga. He can be reached at email@example.com.