By Maggie Haberman – – – – –
The final Republican Fight Night of 2015 ended with a whimper, but there were plenty of bangs throughout.
Several candidates had strong performances, primarily Senators Ted Cruz of Texas and Marco Rubio of Florida. They repeatedly tussled, partly on their own and partly at the nudging of the CNN moderators. But the split-screen repeatedly showing the two men signaled where many in the news media believe the campaign will ultimately end up.
Mr. Cruz fared better than Mr. Rubio, in part because he never seemed to let anything irritate him. He deflected questions from the moderator Dana Bash about his private criticisms of Donald J. Trump at a fund-raiser in New York last week, refusing to repeat them and risk giving Mr. Trump justification to pounce. He insisted he had never favored legal status for undocumented immigrants in 2013, despite video showing him testifying at a hearing that year arguing in favor of an amendment to the immigration reform bill.
But he made his lawyerly argument in a confident way despite Mr. Rubio’s prodding. And in an election cycle where truth has never seemed less relevant to the political discourse, the particulars about what Mr. Cruz did years ago may not matter as much. Mr. Rubio also survived his first real debate-stage pressure this year over his work on that 2013 immigration reform bill, a subject that is deeply unpopular with conservatives.
Gov. Chris Christie of New Jersey had a standout performance. But so did Senator Rand Paul of Kentucky, who has been something of a non-factor for the past several months. Mr. Paul came out swinging at several people, including pointing to the “Bridgegate” scandal that has dogged Mr. Christie. To the extent that Mr. Christie does well, it could affect how Mr. Trump fares in New Hampshire.
Jeb Bush had one of his sharpest performances to date and came extremely close to making Mr. Trump lose his cool. But he pulled back just before that happened.
Finally, there was Mr. Trump, who had relatively little speaking time. He offered a reminder of his lack of an ideological follow-through when he talked about the need to shut down the Internet in certain parts of the globe before bemoaning the cost of the Iraq war, money that he said could have been spent on infrastructure at home.
Not that it will probably matter, of course. Mr. Trump has been said to have had weak performances in the past, and he has only gained strength afterward. And so the race remains focused on Mr. Trump, Mr. Cruz and Mr. Rubio as the campaign pauses for the holidays.