Las Vegas — In an event focused on national security and the war on terror, the most aggressive engagements during the final presidential debate of the year were completely unrelated to suicide attacks in Paris or the rise of the Islamic State group.
Nearly six months to the day since real-estate billionaire Donald Trump blew up the Republican field by launching his improbable campaign for the party's nomination, the eight other leading presidential hopefuls used Tuesday night's debate as a chance to launch a series of rhetorical, political and even personal attacks on the frontrunner in a bid to shake him from the top of the polls. During a two-hour debate that revolved around issues of national security, immigration and the military, candidate after candidate launched a volley of attacks on Trump's policy positions, seriousness and character, arguing that the greatest threat to the national security of the United States may be Trump's candidacy.
Trump was polling at his highest levels ever on the eve of the debate, despite — or possibly due to — his proposed blanket ban on Muslim immigration into the United States. The proposal was widely decried by members of both parties following its release last week, but the tepid response and even occasional nods of approval by Trump's opponents, particularly by Sen. Ted Cruz of Texas, who recently overtook Trump's No. 1 position in the Iowa polls. Both Trump and Cruz were outspoken in their criticism of their political rivals during the debate, with Trump shutting down former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush by deriding his manhood and Cruz calling fellow first-term Sen. Marco Rubio's views on international affairs a "popcorn policy."
"Fight night" in Las Vegas: For weeks preceding the event, host network CNN marketed the debate at the Venetian hotel and casino on the Las Vegas Strip with a series of promotional advertisements that seemed more fitting for a broadcast of the Hunger Games than for a presidential debate. CNN was itching for a brawl, and found plenty of ammunition by pitting candidates against one another based on previous interactions and online feuds.
The formula worked. Rubio, hot on Cruz's heels in national polling and in desperate need of a breakout performance before the new year, was pulled into an intense exchange with him about their differing stances on immigration reform. Bush, whose fights with the Republican frontrunner have gotten him more airtime on network news than any of his policy positions, was asked so many questions that began with, "Mr. Trump said..." that even Trump himself finally took the moderators to task for pitting candidates against each other.
"I think it's very sad that CNN leads Gov. Bush down a road by starting off virtually all of the questions with 'Mr. Trump this.' I think it's very said," Trump said, in response to a question that moderator Hugh Hewitt asked Bush. "And frankly, during the first [CNN] debate, the first long number of questions were 'Mr. Trump said this, Mr. Trump said that.' These poor guys!" Trump declared that the line of combative questioning was "in order to get ratings, I guess."
Trump as Enemy No. 1: Despite Trump's protestations, however, the slugfest continued largely unabated for the majority of the debate. From the first sentence of the candidate introductions, when Sen. Rand Paul of Kentucky called Trump's plan to "close that internet thing" reminiscent of North Korean censorship, the majority of the candidates took at least a few opportunities to slam him either directly or indirectly. "Bombast and insults won't take [America] back," said former Hewlett-Packard CEO Carly Fiorina, who called Trump an "entertainer throwing out sound bites for media attention."
"Donald is great at the one-liners, but he's a chaos candidate, and he'd be a chaos president," said Bush, who reaffirmed previous statements that Trump's proposed ban on Muslim immigration was "unhinged."
Bush's use of the "chaos candidate" label, which was remarked upon in the filing center as a surprisingly adroit use of sound bite by a candidate who has generally shown discomfort in close-quarter rhetorical battles, initiated one of the more memorable exchanges of the debate. Trump immediately fired back at Bush, the once-presumptive nominee whose inexorable slide in the polls has corresponded with Trump's rise.
"Jeb doesn't really believe I'm 'unhinged,'" Trump said. "He said that, very simply, because he has failed in this campaign. It has been a total disaster, nobody cares and, frankly, I'm the most solid person up here."
Later, Bush, an apparent student of T-shirts, attempted to utilize another new attack line on Trump. "You're not going to be able to insult your way to the presidency," Bush said. But Trump, as before, responded to Bush's attempt at a dig with a furious line of his own.
"I'm at 42, and you're at 3," Trump later said, in reference to national polling numbers that show him leaps and bounds above the former-governor-slash-son-of-a-president-slash-brother-of-another-president. "So far, I'm doing better. You started off over here, Jeb," he pantomimed, moving his arms as measuring tools. "You're moving over further and further. Pretty soon you're going to be off the end!
"With Jeb's attitude, we will never be great again."
Not the only fight: Although the hourslong rumble between Bush and Trump may have been the most frequent fight to appear onscreen, it was far from the only battle to take place. In politics, as in Vegas, there's always someone younger and hungrier coming down the stairs after you, and a pair of freshman senators are jockeying for the chance to take Trump's place at the top of the polls. Newly ascendant Rubio started his appearance on Tuesday night by launching a swift attack against Cruz, who he accused him of supporting a bill that kneecapped national intelligence agencies from accessing phone records of suspected terrorists.
"I promise you, the next time there is an attack on this country, the first thing people are going to want to know is, 'Why didn't we know about it and why didn't we stop it?' And the answer better not be because we didn't have access to records or information that would have allowed us to identify these killers before they attacked." Rubio's line was met with loud whistles and sustained applause from the audience.
Cruz in turn compared Rubio to community organizer and Republican bête noire Saul Alinsky.
The toughest exchange of the night, however, was on the issue of immigration. Cruz and Rubio, who have exchanged barbs over the issue since before either one was even a candidate for the presidential nomination, locked horns in a decisive head-to-head battle over a proposed path to citizenship for the estimated 11 million undocumented immigrants currently residing within the United States, a critical issue within the Republican Party.
Under a Rubio administration, he said, undocumented immigrants who fulfill a long series of obligations, including fines, background checks and language training, would be able to attain citizenship.
"I am personally open, after all that has happened and after 10 years in probationary status, I am open to a green card," Rubio said.
Cruz immediately responded, decrying the stance as in keeping with the immigration reform policies of President Barack Obama. "Some chose to stand with President Obama and support a massive amnesty plan," Cruz said. "Others chose to stand with... the American people and secure the border. This issue is directly connected to what we've been talking about: The frontline with ISIS isn't just in Iraq and Syria — it's in Kennedy Airport and the Rio Grande. Border security is national security, and one of the most troubling aspects of the Rubio-Schumer 'Gang of Eight' bill is it gave President Obama blanket authority to admit refugees."
Cruz was referencing the so-called "Gang of Eight" immigration bill, a failed comprehensive immigration bill in 2013 that included a path to citizenship for immigrants living in the U.S. illegally, of which Rubio was the architect.
"If I'm elected president," Cruz continued, "we will secure the border. We will triple the border patrol. We will build a wall that works, and I'll get Donald Trump to pay for it."
The real victories lie beyond debates: Despite Trump's occasional moments of alacrity during the debate when he was touting his poll numbers or demeaning Bush's masculinity, the fifth and final debate of the year illustrated what has become a growing public consensus: that the impact of the debates in an era of 24-hour news cycles is decreasing.
Poor or mediocre debate performances have kneecapped other presidential candidates: Rick Perry, Bobby Jindal, Scott Walker. But Trump, while boisterous, rarely emerges as the clear subjective "winner" of any debates he appears on. In the weeks that span the time between debates, Trump rules the airwaves, starving the remaining candidates for oxygen. Two hours on a Tuesday night are, for Trump, a chance at a breather, to alternately kick back his heels and mug for the audience or to antagonize his opponents, the moderators, the audience or anyone else, depending on his mood.
But while the Vegas debate didn't give Trump or any other candidate an opportunity for a knockout performance, it did little to change the status quo going into the marathon month of January before the Iowa caucuses. Trump's got heat, and the intervening weeks, much more than any single sound bite or snarky moment, will determine how long the frontrunner remains the frontrunner.