From left to right (from the TV viewer’s perspective), two sentences on each candidate’s performance in last night’s CNN debate:
Rand Paul tried hard — perhaps too hard — to go after Donald Trump, with modest success offset by his coming across as slightly whiny. His answers continue to offer an interesting and unusual perspective, more focused on liberty and the Constitution than many of the others, but his campaign nevertheless feels like its tires are spinning badly.
Mike Huckabee made a particular effort to be upbeat, to avoid criticizing other Republicans, and to make a strong moral case in the few questions that came his way. However if you imagine each of the candidates being asked “Why do you want to be president?” he’s the one I have the hardest time imagining answering the question adequately.
Marco Rubio was one of the night’s big winners, getting (in part due to his own efforts) plenty of air time and making the most of it by demonstrating competence and thoughtfulness on a range of issues, including backing up Jeb Bush on why it’s OK to speak Spanish in an interview or to a questioner. His most important statement of the evening was his I’ve-learned-my-lesson mea culpa regarding comprehensive immigration reform, the issue which has most bothered the GOP base when it comes to Rubio’s candidacy.
Ted Cruz yet again did not get as much question/air time as you might expect for one of the top candidates but, yet again, he demonstrates tremendous knowledge and principle. He put himself in a tough spot by aggressively criticizing Supreme Court Chief Justice John Roberts without acknowledging that he supported Roberts at the time, but overall he had a decent night. (Bonus sentence for Cruz: I continue to believe that Cruz’s strategy is to play nice with Trump and try to get Trump’s former supporters should The Donald’s campaign begin to weaken.)
Dr. Ben Carson is a smart and kind man whose lack of both domestic and foreign policy experience is still showing even as his calm intellect is a welcome respite from Donald Trump, two candidates who are basically chasing the same group of “anybody but a career politician” voters. His debate performance may be best (or slightly charitably) described as “adequate” — he didn’t seem as if he was utterly out of his league but he also showed little passion — but “adequate” may not be adequate for someone who has more to prove, in a political sense, than anybody else on stage.
Donald Trump received, as usual, most of the attention but this time it probably hurt him slightly (despite the self-selected Drudge Report poll claiming that viewers thought he won the debate). Trump’s answers, with the exception of his reiteration of his initial opposition to the war in Iraq (which differentiates him substantially from most of the field other than Rand Paul), offered very little depth while his insults or faux-compliments, his back-slapping, low-fiving, hand-shaking frat boy antics, along with the constant split-screens showing him making ridiculous faces, gave weight to Rand Paul’s description of Mr. Trump as sophomoric. (Bonus sentence for Trump: I don’t think that Trump’s current supporters will find his debate performance to have been as bad as I found it; the question is what undecided GOP voters thought, which I suppose we’ll soon learn.)
Jeb Bush had a better night than many in the media credit him with, demonstrating a sense of humor, a bit of “he’s at least a little bit of a normal person” (by admitting that he’s smoked marijuana), and enough energy that even Donald Trump praised him for it. His statement that Chief Justice John Roberts is “doing a good job” was a mistake, not least because Bush knows how disastrous Roberts’ saving of Obamacare was, and it’s not great for Jeb that his best foreign policy moment was probably talking about his brother “keeping us safe,” but overall Bush had a solid night standing up to Trump.
Scott Walker needed a magic moment to break out of his recent funk and he simply didn’t get it despite trying hard by repeatedly looking directly into the camera and asking people to vote for him because he has demonstrated his ability to fight unions and get things done in a “blue state” — which is true but doesn’t seem to be sinking it. Unfortunately, because I think Scott Walker is a potentially excellent president, I continue to believe that Megyn Kelly’s question of Walker in the first debate — “Would you really let a mother die rather than have an abortion?” — ended Walker’s chances in 2016.
Carly Fiorina was probably the winner — again — with her obvious intelligence and broad knowledge, strong foreign policy answers, aggressive responses to Donald Trump (including making Trump look very bad for having insulted her looks without actually coming across as feeling insulted), and her touching story about having lost a child to drug abuse. If she had any weakness, it was perhaps coming across as too aggressive in frequency of trying to jump into the conversation, giving very long answers, and offering not very much humor — though I also wouldn’t be surprised if aggressiveness is an intentional part of her strategy to show voters that this woman is just as tough as any man on the stage.
John Kasich didn’t have nearly as successful a night as he had in the Fox News debate despite efforts to come across as more personable and his valid emphasis on his experience, having served in Congress for 18 years (including being responsible for balancing the budget the only time it’s happened in recent years) as well as turning Ohio’s finances around. Kasich may have hurt himself with his insufficient skepticism of Iran’s likely (non)compliance with the “nuclear deal” but escaped mostly unscathed, in part because none of the other candidates pointed out his heresy-to-conservatives expansion of Medicaid. (Bonus sentence about Kasich: Candidates out on the edges, i.e. with low current polling numbers, need to do much better than “didn’t hurt himself” in order to get more people to consider them.)
Chris Christie had the best night of those candidates polling in the low single digits, cleverly coming out of the gate by asking the TV cameras to focus on the audience instead of him and maintaining that “it’s about you” approach throughout the debate and focusing on the middle class such as by chiding Trump and Fiorina for their bickering about each other’s careers. His no-nonsense and law-and-order approach should be appealing to Americans who see the law being flouted or ignored on the border and in the White House, but he still has a ways to go to get Republicans to forgive him for so publicly fawning over Barack Obama just prior to the 2012 election.
CNN debate moderator Jake Tapper and his CNN colleague Dana Bash spent far too much time asking questions of candidates intended to pit them against other candidates, although the Republicans mostly didn’t take the bait — and when they did, they mostly treated the others on the stage with respectful disagreement. Given the importance to conservatives of having a conservative questioner involved in the debate, especially after Candy Crowley’s reprehensible intervention on behalf of Barack Obama in a 2012 debate with Mitt Romney, it was both disappointing and surprising to see how few questions radio talk show host Hugh Hewitt was allowed to ask.
My ranking of debate performance from biggest winner to biggest loser, keeping in mind that nobody did very badly but a couple of people who really needed to do well fell flat:
Closing thoughts: It’s nearly impossible to give enough air time to each of 11 candidates, so the CNN debate’s three hours, while often wearisome, was necessary to allow even a hint of depth of answers and interaction between candidates. With the exception of Chris Christie’s solid performance, changes in political momentum were slight, with Fiorina continuing her ascent, Walker continuing to disappoint, and most of the others doing slightly well or slightly badly but not enough to shake off existing supporters or create many new ones. Aside from the three clear winners, all Jeb and Ted Cruz needed to do was hang around and they did at least that.
Ben Carson needed to show more than he did, though I (like many others) find it tough to criticize someone who seems like such a gentleman. I admit that I’ve been surprised by his rise in the polls, having previously said that especially in politics “nice guys finish last.” Yesterday he wasn’t last, but I felt as if it might have stopped his momentum and therefore it was a bad night for the good doctor.
I reiterate that although I found Trump’s debate performance to be disappointing in almost every way, I do not think his supporters will abandon him in large numbers based on Wednesday night, but he also won’t gain any new ones. In short, I think The Donald has peaked.
All that means I continue to believe that of the three true “outsiders” (Trump, Carson, and Fiorina), Carly Fiorina is the only one with the combination of strength, knowledge, experience, and discipline to be president; I also think she’s the most electable of the three. (By the way, given all the hand-wringing over Mitt Romney’s Mormon faith and whether evangelicals would be willing to support him, it’s interesting that nobody is talking about Ben Carson’s religion; he’s a Seventh Day Adventist, a religion which has certain similarities to Mormonism, not least how few Americans know anything of substance about it.)
For several months, my top two candidates (based on a blend of who I’d like to be president and who I think can win the nomination and a general election) have been Carly Fiorina and Marco Rubio. Wednesday’s debate reinforced that view.
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