Some passing observations on the Republican debate in Las Vegas:
This was a status quo debate. It's hard to imagine that anything that took place on the stage at the Venetian will reshuffle the Republican race in a fundamental way. None of the second and third tier candidates – Jeb Bush, Carly Fiorina, Chris Christie, John Kasich, Rand Paul – did anything to suggest that he or she will climb to the next tier. And none of the frontrunners – Donald Trump, Ted Cruz, Marco Rubio, Ben Carson – did anything to torpedo his candidacy.
Cruz v. Rubio on the NSA and national security
Cruz and Rubio picked up the debate they've been having from a distance on national security and engaged in some of the most substantive and intense back-and-forth of the entire night. Rubio hit Cruz for his support of the USA Freedom Act, which ended bulk data collection by the NSA, and criticized Cruz's votes against all recent versions of the National Defense Authorization Acts in favor of Rand Paul's budget. Cruz, for his part, accused Rubio of supporting Obama/Clinton policies in the Middle East and defended his vote for the USA Freedom Act by suggesting that the law enhanced the government's ability to track would-be terrorists.
There's some dispute in the intelligence community about whether or how the elimination of the NSA's metadata program will leave the U.S. more vulnerable attacks, but very few national security experts outside of the Obama administration argue that it actually makes us more secure. On his website and in speeches, Cruz has cited Director of National Intelligence James Clapper as a supporter of the reforms – an odd choice for a vociferous critic of the Obama administration's counterterrorism efforts. Cruz didn't do that in the debate, and instead referred to a Facebook post by talk radio host Mark Levin. It was a smart move – he's seeking the approval of Republican primary voters, not reporters who might find Clapper's view authoritative.