The first thing I’d like to point out before discussing any of the candidates was that the moderators of last night’s Fox News “Grown-Up Debate” were at times very, very awkward. The beginning of that debate was brutal. Megyn Kelly, Chris Wallace and Bret Baier (I really like the latter two, Kelly not so much) spent about 12 minutes going through extremely awkward (and seemingly forced) banter. I don’t know what the point of starting the debate at 8:50 P.M. was, but if it was to create a lively and amusing atmosphere, Fox News failed tremendously. Now, when Kelly, Baier and Wallace stopped goofing around and got to the actual questions, they all did a very good job. The majority of the questions were tailored nicely to the candidates and all moderators were active in getting the candidates to stay on point. All three moderators deserve credit for a job (mostly) well done. Now, let’s get to the candidates one by one.
Trump: Let’s be honest and just admit Trump is the main reason that everyone was watching last night. I’m hearing that Fox News got 24 million people to watch the debate, and good for them because it was a very good debate. That being said, I have a feeling that number would be significantly lower if Trump weren’t in the race. As for Trump himself, he definitely struggled at times and was heavily put to the test by the moderators. But for the most part, he was himself and did not look intimidated even though it was his first debate. Trump also did a good job maintaining his cool and not getting too bombastic, and even I liked the Rosie O’Donnell one-liner (she’s a 9/11 Truther and an overrated actor). Some ridiculous statements that Trump made will not affect him very much (i.e. how no one would be talking about immigration if it weren’t for him). Others, including the one where he insulted (and maybe threatened?) Megyn Kelly did not play over so well, and the crowd let him know it. Trump still is all style and no substance, but at this point I don’t think that deficiency will affect his lead too much. The Frank Luntz focus group excoriated Trump for not getting specific on his policy proposals, and they especially didn’t like his refusal to rule out a run as an Independent third-party candidate ala Ross Perot. However, I think that GOP primary voters are willing to give him more time to develop his ideas (by “his” I mean “his advisers”). Expect him to still be the front-runner before the next debate on September 16th in Simi Valley, California (hosted by CNN).
Rubio: Definitely the winner of last night’s debate in my opinion (as well as some others). I always knew Florida Senator Marco Rubio was articulate and eloquent, but he gave very good answers and looked presidential (for the record, by “good answers” I mean answers that GOP primary voters would like, not me). Rubio avoided getting into a verbal fight with Jed Bush over Common Core, and did not really go after anyone else. Also, his smile is refreshingly nice to look at (much like President Obama’s). For the record, his answer about abortion did terrify the living daylights out of me, but I have to think that was more bluster than anything else. I have a hard time believing that Rubio would oppose abortion in the cases of rape, incest and the life of a mother. I was hoping Rubio would go over his idea about reforming/expanding the Earned Income Tax Credit (which I actually think is good), but he stuck to the issues that concern most GOP primary voters. Rubio also had a very good one liner when zinging Clinton about her “living paycheck-to-paycheck” comment. I would be astonished if Senator Rubio’s numbers do not go up in the polls.
Kasich: Now I know conservatives are collectively rolling their eyes at liberals for lauding and extolling Ohio Governor John Kasich’s performance in last night’s debate. But the truth is that Kasich gave a very good defense for his decision regarding Medicaid expansion and his answer on gay marriage, even though the former is out of line with most GOP primary voters and the latter is changing among young Republicans rapidly. Let’s also give the caveat that Kasich had a significant home turf advantage last night. Home state advantage aside, he got a lot of applause from the crowd and came off strong but not overly combative. I was surprised that he didn’t give a more detailed immigration answer (whehter or not he supports a path to legalization as Jeb Bush does), but I’m guessing he got himself into enough trouble with GOP primary voters last night. In general, I agree with the consensus that he deserved to be on the main stage and did pretty well. However, there are reports that at the Red State Gathering currently going on right now in Atlanta (set up by Red State commander Erick Erickson), the mere mention of Kasich’s name invokes lots of boos. Kasich was not invited to the Red State Gathering because of his Medicaid expansion stance. Color me not surprised.
Bush: If there was ever a candidate in need of a desperate push, it is former Florida Governor Jeb Bush. No question he needed to have a good debate performance last night, and for the most part he did. Bush struggled on a couple of his answers, but he didn’t get explosive with Trump and displayed his professional candor and serious demeanor. Bush’s mission was to come off as the “Republican Establishment” front-runner, and in that he succeeded. Bush did a good job going over his record in Florida (even if he misstated a few things), and he also successfully navigated his way through a difficult immigration question (he may be the only candidate on the stage to support a path to legalization). However, Bush struggled on foreign policy questions and still comes off as uncharismatic. I have to think he didn’t win any “anti-establishment” voters, but moderate GOP primary voters may start giving him a second look (if they’re not still dealing with a case of Trump fever).
Walker: I wouldn’t say Walker delivered a strong performance last night, but the current Governor of Wisconsin did not stumble too badly either. Walker gave thorough details about his record as Governor and made a convincing case that he is a winner. Walker gave strong answers about abortion and his immigration reversal, and his closing statement was one of the strongest in my opinion (REMINDER: I do not agree with him on any of these issues). However, Walker appeared very shaky on foreign policy, which should have some hawkish elements of the party worried. Walker is walking (pun intended) a fine line between courting both establishment/moderate GOP voters and the Tea Party crowd who appear skeptical but willing to listen to him. Walker will need to develop more charisma going forward, and it is unclear if he will be able to defend himself from attacks that will inevitably come from his competitors. Overall, I think he’s getting more comfortable with being on the national stage, but still at times looks like he is running for President of the College Republicans Club. Walker doesn’t look stern as much as he looks… bland. And for the love of god, please stop winking. It’s friggin’ creepy.
Carson: I still have no idea what the hell this guy is doing on the national stage. I read a tweet from Kevin Williamson of the National Review Online saying that he should run for Governor instead of President. I wholeheartedly agree. Carson came off as very timid and very nervous. For example, his answer about his tax plan was just not very good at all. Carson needs to speak louder, develop a more commanding presence and study harder about the issues. A lot of people liked his closing statement where he bragged about performing unbelievably difficult surgery procedures, but frankly, I remained unimpressed with his performance. Frank Luntz’s panel apparently thought he did a good job, but I would be very surprised if his numbers went up after this debate.
Christie: Despite my earlier prediction about New Jersey Governor Chris Christie not standing out, I was clearly wrong. Christie stood out big-time in my opinion, and I was reading tweets from several other conservatives who were impressed with his answer about social security (and the debate with Huckabee that succeeded it). As for the heated exchange he had with Rand Paul, I thought Christie delivered a more forceful response and looked interested in the actual debate (whereas Paul looked like he was upset that he had to even explain his opposition to Christie’s points). I admit that I lean towards Christie on the issues of the NSA and the Patriot Act, but even if you took the substance out, I thought Christie steamrolled Paul and got the louder applause from the audience. For the record, I’m pretty sure more GOP primary voters side with Christie on this issue than they do with Paul. Christie also looked strong when he discussed his success as a pro-life Governor despite being in New Jersey (an overwhelmingly Democratic leaning state that favors abortion rights). If Christie did step in it, it was on foreign policy. It was hard to tell if he was advocating for a stronger presence in Syria and Iraq to take on ISIS/ISIL, and he seemed to take the generic route when discussing what he would do in dealing with Iran’s (supposed) nuclear program developments.
Paul: Of all the candidates, I thought Kentucky Senator Rand Paul did the most poorly. It wasn’t just the exchange with Christie on the NSA. Even though I disagree with Paul, I thought he made a solid case and yelling “fourth amendment!” works well with Independent and Libertarian-leaning GOP voters (the question is, how many of them are there? Answer, not many). Where I thought Paul went wrong last night was his constantly negative attitude and bitter demeanor. Paul was at the main event, yet looked like he was at the “happy hour debate”. Paul looked miserable throughout the entire debate. Furthermore, he looked like he hated elaborating on his positions and that he couldn’t believe he is currently losing in the polls to many of his fellow candidates. Paul rarely smiled, he yelled a lot, and I think many of his answers did not stand out at all (to be fair, it’s true that he got the least amount of speaking time of all the candidates). Paul needs to quit his whining and develop a better strategy for getting his numbers up. I know he’s had some recent campaign troubles, but if he really is in this for the long haul, he can’t keep showing up to all the debates with a pissy attitude. Maybe Senator Paul will have a stronger debate performance in September at the Ronald Reagan Library. For his sake, he better.
Huckabee: Former Arkansas Governor Mike Huckabee did a much better job than I thought he would. Surprisingly, he wasn’t his usual jovial self. Huckabee’s demeanor was much more hellfire and brimstone than he normally is. But then again, maybe I’m forgetting what he was like on the debate stage in 2007 and am only remembering him from his Fox News show and other media appearances. As for his policy positions, the debate with him and Christie on social security was lively (using the “pimps and prostitutes” line garnered a lot of praise from the debate audience, no surprise there). Huckabee’s answers on abortion and trans-individuals in the military scared the living daylights out of me, but I think it was good red meat for the social conservative crowd. On foreign policy, Huckabee looks more prepared this time around. I don’t know if he has Bill Kristol’s vote, but I’m sure he made an impression with the hawks in the party. The Frank Luntz focus group also gave exalting reviews of his debate performance, so you may end up seeing his numbers get a lift in the coming polls. Me personally? I thought Huckabee was better than I thought he would be, but he was not one of the stand out performances in my eyes.
Cruz: Here is another one I got wrong. Not too wrong, as I said yesterday that I thought Texas Senator Ted Cruz would do somewhere in between decent and excellent. Cruz was excellent. Despite flubbing a few words here and there, Cruz delivered strong answers on most topics (in particular on the social issues). You could definitely tell that Cruz was the captain of the Harvard debate team. Cruz also found a way to look youthful and vibrant while at the same time appear serious and rigid. Cruz is arguably the most conservative candidate on the stage, which previously was a fault. Not so with this Republican Presidential Primary. Cruz articulated his strong conservative vision very well, and it may translate into higher numbers. It was interesting because while Cruz didn’t call any of the candidates out by name, he did call them out on their deviation from the modern conservative orthodoxy. Very well played, indeed.
Final thoughts: Despite a rough beginning, it was a very good debate. Good questions, lively atmosphere (after the awkward banter at the beginning) and a good crowd. I look forward to the next one. I think the winners of last night were Rubio, Kasich and Cruz. Losers were Carson and Paul. Everyone else fell somewhere in between very good and decent. Although it could be because I’m comparing these candidates to those who participated in the last GOP primary debates in 2012, which of course were a total trainwreck. I’d also like to reiterate that just because I gave most of the candidates a positive review, I DO NOT SUPPORT ANY OF THEM. NONE. ZERO. I am a proud pro-choice Democrat and will remain so. I am a Hilary Clinton supporter (or whoever wins the Democratic Party nomination… yeah, yeah, we all know it’s going to be Hilary).