gop debate donald trump new york times tapes off the record orig vstan 06_00014005.jpg
Donald Trump refuses to release New York Times tape
02:07 - Source: Fox News

Editor’s Note: Buck Sexton is a political commentator for CNN and host of “The Buck Sexton Show” on TheBlaze. He was previously a CIA counterterrorism analyst. The opinions expressed in this commentary are his.

Story highlights

Buck Sexton: Four weary contenders tussled at the GOP debate with two going after Trump and John Kasich trying a calmer path

Cruz had strong night, but the basic dynamics of the race may not change, Sexton says

CNN  — 

The GOP race is down to the final four candidates, and last night’s Fox News debate showed the wear and tear of an already bruising campaign on each of them.

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.

It is a safe bet when Univision hosts a debate, run by Latino moderators, that immigration will be a primary topic. This was certainly the case in Miami Wednesday night, as the first hour of the Democratic debate was almost entirely devoted to immigration, border security and legalization. The substance of that first half, however, was so full of blatant pandering to Latino voters and wild promises to wield executive power on their behalf that it could come back to haunt the eventual Democratic nominee (likely Hillary Clinton) in a general election.

Join us on
Read CNNOpinion’s new Flipboard magazine.