By Frank Bruni
New York Times
Going into the latest debate, the trending question about Jeb Bush on Google was whether he was "still running for president." The answer is yes, and on Tuesday night, he tried, yet again, to put an exclamation point on it.
After a week of fresh attention to the rococo psychology of the Bush dynasty, after huddles with new media advisers, after countless requiems for his campaign, Bush gave this troubled, increasingly quixotic quest of his one more shot, maybe his last.
He insisted on speaking time.
He sarcastically expressed gratitude to Donald Trump for saying that he should get some.
"Thank you, Donald, for allowing me to speak at the debate," Bush said, and for perhaps the first time in one of these debates, he didn't sound entirely self-pitying. He sounded nervy. "What a generous man you are," he told Trump.
Then he attacked Trump's vows to deport millions of immigrants, putting aside any fears of alienating the Republican base and characterizing such a plan as wrong and mean.
"It's not embracing American values and it would tear communities apart," Bush said with what sounded like genuine passion. He added that Republicans were dooming themselves in the general election when they talked the way Trump did.
"They're doing high-fives in the Clinton campaign," he said. "That's the problem with this. We have to win the presidency." Is that best done with hard-core conservatism or with something more nuanced and with some concessions to reality? Is it best done with a loopy outsider like Trump or Ben Carson or with a political veteran like Bush or John Kasich? These questions -- these tensions -- were front and center during Tuesday night's debate, the fourth meeting of Republican candidates. During the first hour, at least, Bush and Kasich railed against what they clearly saw as the fantasies and cruelties of their compatriots.
Ted Cruz pushed back, and he pushed back hard, and he pushed back with a scathing attack on the news media, which was certain to come at some point. He rolled that attack together with a proclamation of unyielding opposition to any sensible immigration reform.
"I understand that when the mainstream media covers immigration, it doesn't often see it as an economic issue, but I can tell you for millions of Americans at home watching this, it is," Cruz said. "The politics of it would be very, very different if a bunch of lawyers or bankers were crossing the Rio Grande, or if a bunch of people with journalism degrees were coming over and driving down the wages in the press. Then we would see stories about the economic calamity that is befalling our nation." Cruz and Marco Rubio once again established themselves as two of the smoothest, most confident talkers, with Rubio trying to live up to the welling buzz that he is the party's likely nominee and to put to rest any notion that he's too young to be commander-in-chief. When he discussed foreign policy, tangling with Rand Paul, he didn't just speak loudly. He thundered.
Carson never really has a great night: He's too low-key for the format, too much of a rambler, and he doesn't butt in. On Tuesday night, everyone was butting in. Kasich was all butt all the time.
But Carson danced nimbly around a question about his exaggerations of his autobiography. Then again he was assisted by a gentle question about it and a lack of any follow-up. The moderators, from Fox Business Network and The Wall Street Journal, didn't want to meet the withering fate that CNBC's moderators did after the last debate. They weren't pushovers, but they treaded carefully.
The stage was strangely denuded, like a forest after overzealous logging. No Chris Christie. No Mike Huckabee. They'd both been demoted to the warm-up debate of low-polling candidates earlier in the night. For the main event, there were eight contenders where there had once been 11 -- back in the glory days of Scott Walker.
Remember when Walker, like Bush, was something of a front-runner? Or when Paul was on the cover of Time -- and No. 1 on Politico's annual list of visionaries transforming American politics? For Tuesday night's debate, Paul was relegated to a far end of the stage, like a hard-luck mountaineer holding tight to a crumbling cliff.
So cruel, this politics business. So confounding, too.
And yet so predictable.
"My father was a bartender," Rubio said at the start. "My mother was a maid." "My father carried mail on his back," Kasich said moments later. "His father was a coal miner." Another debate, another round of ancestral one-upmanship. Needless to say, Bush and Trump couldn't join that particular game.