I have purposefully avoided commenting too much about the GOP nomination race. I’ve been through enough of these races to know that virtually nothing worthwhile happens in the summer before the primaries. That was compounded this year, with the emergence of Donald Trump to the race.
But the first debate deserves some commentary, so here are my initial thoughts, in order of the Fox News ranking:
1. Donald Trump: Trump hurt himself from the get go. Bret Baier began the night with maybe the most impressive question a debate ever has begun with: would the candidates promise not to run as a third party candidate?
Trump of course would never make that promise…and lost the crowd immediately. This is where being a Republican matters. I still believe much of Trump’s support comes from fringe GOP voters, not voters that make up most of the primary electorate. Tonight was the first example of this discord.
Trump then went on to insult Megyn Kelly (after she asked a tough question about his relationship with women)…and the night went downhill from there.
I have no idea of what effect this will have on his poll numbers. Who knows what his supporters believe at this point. I can say without any doubt that this hurt his chances among GOP primary voters.
2. Jeb Bush: Jeb is Jeb. He is boring, competent, plodding, unexciting, but steadfast. If milquetoast is what you want, Jeb is your man. He didn’t hurt himself, but I don’t think he helped himself either.
3. Scott Walker: Walker calls himself boring, and in some ways he is. I think like Jeb, he didn’t hurt himself at all. He probably helped himself in small ways, repeating his successes in Wisconsin against withering attacks from liberals and Unions.
4. Mike Huckabee: OK, for me, this was a clear disconnect. I didn’t care for virtually anything he said. But there is no question that he connected with base voters at times.
5. Ben Carson: I really liked Carson. He was shallow on policy details, and that will always dog him. But he had, by far, the best closing statement of the night, and that helped redeem him.
6. Ted Cruz: Ted Cruz had a very good night. When he went on the attack against Obama and his abuse of executive power, he was very strong. Cruz maybe had his best moment when he talked about sanctuary cities, and the bill he wrote in response to the murder in San Francisco.
7. Marco Rubio: Rubio had an excellent night. Like Cruz, when he was able to get to his core issues, he was commanding and, maybe most important, appeared Presidential.
8. Rand Paul: Paul started the night by going after Trump, somewhat successfully. But then, he seemed combative with everyone, eventually getting into a fierce fight with, of all people, Chris Christie. Strategically, this was a mistake. It wasted time on a candidate that Paul has nothing to gain from, and even worse, he probably lost a winnable argument to Christie.
9. Chris Chrisite: Christie had a solid night, actually. Problem is, he has no chance of rising in the polls enough to challenge the top-tier. He carries far too many negatives at this point.
10. John Kasich: Kasich had a very good night as well. His form of ‘compassionate conservatism’ came over nicely, especially in the question regarding how he would react if his daughters revealed they were gay. Of course, Kasich did make some factual errors regarding Medicaid expansion in Ohio, and often avoided the central questions asked, but still he came off as reasonable and competent.
Others: I wanted to include the members of the earlier debate. Carly Fiorina, by far, won the afternoon debate. She was personable, likable, and demonstrated a command of the issues. She was also the most effective critic of Hillary Clinton by far. Ironically, her most publicized moment may have come after the debate, in a scuffle with Chris Matthews on MSNBC. That can be seen here, but in short: she took Matthews to the woodshed, and looked commanding doing it.
Sadly, Rick Perry and Bobby Jindal had mediocre debate performances at best. It will be very difficult for them to gain traction as we go forward. The other candidates are, for all practical measures, non-entities.
My overall take?
I think it is very hard to pick a winner from such a broad debate stage. If I forced to choose, I would say Marco Rubio came out on top. He appeared steady, Presidential, with a command of the issues and the ability to attack when needed.
Ted Cruz, Scott Walker, John Kasich, Ben Carson, and Mike Huckabee probably helped themselves out to varying degrees. I will really be interested in seeing if Carly Fiorina’s performance gives her any traction. She probably deserves some; I honestly wonder if she would have won the night debate, if she had been on stage.
Jeb Bush was boring and competent, and he will always be boring and competent. Is that enough to win the nomination?
Chris Christie and Rand Paul are just biding time, I think. Neither made a strong case to go forward for too long. Paul at least has the support of a libertarian base to continue onward; Christie really has no such argument to make.
The $60 million question? How much did Trump hurt himself? I would say he was boorish, clownish, and largely unresponsive to questions…but that didn’t stop him from surging to first place to begin with. I make no predictions about how this will affect his poll numbers; I have long ago given up on predicting what will happen in regards to Donald Trump.
One last point: I was very skeptical of Fox News and their format, but Bret Baier, Megyn Kelly and Chris Wallace did as fantastic a job as could be expected in this kind of setting. They deserve a lot of credit for running a very enjoyable debate.