Presidential primary debates, how we’ve missed you. The Fox News Republican debate last night more than lived up to the weeks of hype, with things getting feisty right off the bat. Candidates sparred back-and-forth with each other, the moderators asked incredibly difficult, personal questions and everyone seemed like they came ready to play. Even the seven-person “happy hour” debate of the candidates whose polling numbers didn’t make the main stage cut was pretty entertaining too.
Here’s our analysis of who stood out, who faltered and who was just so-so:
John Kasich – To be fair, the Ohio Governor was playing on a hometown field with a supportive, cheering crowd. He provided some of the best policy- and detail-laden answers of any of the candidates, took a different approach from easy applause lines, and came off as a serious, experienced contender. I say all this with a bit of caution because my Democratic friends unanimously thought he was the best – which might mean he appealed to conservatives the least. And he probably lost some right-wingers in defending the Medicaid expansion and speaking kindly of gay people. But still, I really do think he stood out and justified himself being on the 10-person stage after recently announcing. Plenty of more-moderate Republicans have won the nomination before, and really all he needs to do right now is maintain a 5% to 10% standing in the polls. He more than easily accomplished that. He also smartly avoided getting in a fight with Trump when egged on by the moderators.
Marco Rubio – He came off polished and serious throughout the debate, and his answers seemed incredibly sincere for the short amount of time he had to give them. He didn’t really get to interact with any of the other candidates, which was where the night’s most memorable moments came from, but he looked the most presidential of all to those who were closely paying attention.
Chris Christie – The debates may end up to be the New Jersey Governor’s biggest strength, because it gives him the opportunity to get into fights with the moderators and other candidates. He pushed back very strongly anytime he was asked a tough question about his record, but avoided sounding like a jerk. His back-and-forth with Rand Paul over NSA surveillance was by the far the best moment of the debate. And he wasn’t afraid to even tussle with candidates like Mike Huckabee. Christie is selling a personality to primary Republicans, and it was on full display Thursday night.
Carly Fiorina – The clear stand-out winner of the “happy hour” debate for her combative, forceful style. “We need a nominee who is going to throw every punch, not pull punches, and someone who cannot stumble before he even gets in the ring,” she said, garnering many compliments on Twitter. Fiorina has been impressing crowds in the early states, but was practically non-existent on the cable news media cycles. With this performance in front of a national audience, expect her to finally start rising in the polls, and maybe catching some excitement among female Republicans that she’s lacked so far.
Donald Trump – Did Trump lose some viewers when pressed about his past comments about women and how he shot back at Megyn Kelly? Absolutely. But he was never going to win them anyway. And again, right now winning doesn’t mean getting to 51%, it means keeping a sizable percentage of the Republican primary-going voters. Trump held onto his own because he got to once again show off his screw-you attitude. He had no substantive answers or detail on any policy, but he didn’t need to for the type of people already supporting him. And he has a legitimate complaint that Fox News treated him unfairly – all but one question directed at Trump was incredibly harsh. Fox News seemed to want to straight-up assassinate Trump after building him up, but this was the completely wrong approach. Better to ignore him or give him boring policy questions he can’t answer, and let viewers drift to the more competent-sounding candidates. When you attack him personally, that’s when he shines (to some, anyway).
Fox News Moderators – Besides the very awkward opening bit, the moderators really did voters and the country a great service by pressing the candidates on tough, specific questions. It’s not often you see a presidential candidate get asked on national TV the toughest negative there is about them, and be forced to address it. Good job.
Rand Paul – Well, it could have been worse. If Trump hadn’t risen in the polls and had the big target on his back at the debate, Paul would have been even more of a punching bag for the other candidates. Paul looked weak throughout, got into too many fights that he shouldn’t have (he needlessly picked one with Trump and immediately got smacked down), and didn’t appeal to anyone outside his libertarian base of supporters. He ended with what should have been a strong line of “I’m a different kind of Republican.” But all I could think was “yeah, the kind Republicans don’t like.”
Scott Walker – The Wisconsin Governor’s dull, friendly Midwestern persona may do well on the stump, but it didn’t translate too well on the debate stage. By no means did Walker falter in any of his answers, and he said the right things the Republican base wants to hear. But he came across as very vanilla, and didn’t make a lasting memory for viewers.
Rick Perry – He just barely missed the main debate stage thanks to Kasich’s late entry, and he didn’t do himself enough favors in the “happy hour” debate to get him back into the game. He didn’t do bad, but he didn’t stand out either. Perry’s mangled “Ronald Raven” line got mocked incessantly on the Internet, because the Internet is stupid, but I don’t think regular voters watching the debate really cared. The problem for Perry is that Fiorina and possibly Bobby Jindal seem to be on the rise, and few in the top 10 appear destined for an implosion. Perry may be debating with Jim Gilmore and George Pataki for a while.
Mike Huckabee – After last night he seems to be the one most likely to lose his top 10 spot in the future. He’s done decently well in the national polls for months, but much of that may be due to his national Fox News show and that he did well in 2008. But there were plenty of candidates more compelling than him on the stage that night.
Debbie Wasserman Schultz’s Debate Talking Points – Come on, chairwoman. The DNC head did some press hits after the debate, but really opened herself up to hypocrisy criticism in what she chose to slam Republicans on. “It’s pretty clear why they did everything they could to shrink the number of debates, to shrink the exposure…” Wasserman Schultz said. Seriously? You seriously want to mock the Republicans for limiting their number of debates to twelve on the exact same day you announce the details of the six Democratic debates? Is six a bigger number than twelve? Good lord. The sparse amount of Democratic debates is unfortunate and there’s already plenty of Democrats upset over it. It infuriates me when people make attacks in interviews that can so easily be thrown right back in their face, and yet they seem to not realize it or prepare for it all. Wasserman Schultz was lucky that Kelly wanted to talk about other things and didn’t call her out on it.
– Lindsey Graham was in Sad Lindsey mode last night. He was serious and somber to the extent of being depressing, and his relating how his parents died when he was a teenager and how he is 60 and doesn’t have kids didn’t cheer anyone up. But that personal story also caused a massive spike in online searches for Graham, so it helped him in the end. Graham continues to be one of the most authentic candidates in the race – sometimes though, authentic Graham can be rather sad.
– Bobby Jindal is trying to be the candidate of choice for evangelical voters, but Rick Santorum still works that crowd hard and gets his share. Unfortunately for Jindal, Santorum performed well in the earlier debate, thus likely continuing the vote split.
– Jeb Bush did ok, but also seemed uncertain at times. He didn’t have any big screw ups, but it seems like he could use a few more debates to practice for the general if he ends up being the nominee.
– Ben Carson was subdued for most of the first half of the debate, but his personality really came out near the end.
– Ted Cruz also did fine, but his obvious strength is doing big, prepared speeches before a supportive crowd. It would have been interesting to see him interact more with the other candidates. He’s been getting on a lot of people’s nerves recently in the Senate, but no one bothered to target him last night.
by Pat Rynard