So who got the most oomph out the first presidential debates last week?
The prime-time event on Fox News drew 24 million viewers, the highest number ever to watch a primary debate, giving the candidates their best opportunity so far to present themselves to a national audience.
In the 9pm debate, for the top ten Republican candidates as measured by an average of polls, the big question was whether Donald Trump was helped or hurt by his performance. He stayed in character, which may have pleased his fans, but he said little that appears likely to win him new support and may have turned off some who liked him previously. When the candidates were asked if they would reserve the right not to support the Republican nominee for president and might consider a third-party bid as an option, only Trump raised his hand. The largely Republican audience reacted with raucous booing.
Trump did hit a few balls out of the park. When Bush called for a more respectful tone in dealing with foreign nations, Trump replied, “When you have people cutting Christians’ heads off … we don’t have time for tone.”
But he exhibited both belligerency and sensitivity to criticism. Most snarly was his hostility toward Fox News’ Meghan Kelly, who read to him various disparaging comments he had made about women he didn’t like. After a feisty exchange, Trump said to Kelly, “I’ve been very nice to you, although I could probably maybe not be, based on the way you have treated me,” a comment Fox commentator Brit Hume called “an ugly moment.”
Conservative columnist Charles Krauthammer, in his post-debate analysis, said that the real story was “the collapse of Trump.” And most of Frank Luntz’s focus group of Republicans who viewed the debate for Fox was positive about Trump before the debate, but negative afterwards. Trump “crashed and burned,” said one participant. “I think he needs to support our party,” said another. Others used words like “bombastic” and “narcissism” to describe him. But, of course, all of this was true about Trump before the debate, and he was leading in the polls. So we’ll see.
Ohio Gov. John Kasich, buoyed by an enthusiastic response from the home-state Republicans attending the debate, did a good job of introducing himself to a national audience and demonstrated, within more or less conservative boundaries, an ability to take positions that could help the GOP in the General Election, where the electorate is more moderate than in Republican primaries. He defended his decision to expand Medicaid in Ohio, as well as other programs to help the working poor. “Economic growth is the key,” Kasich said, “but it is important to reach people in the shadows. Lift everybody, unite everybody.” He said that he supported traditional marriage, but that the
Supreme Court has ruled for same-sex marriage and “I have accepted that.” He also noted, to surprisingly strong applause, that he recently attended a gay wedding. But he also tacked right on immigration, commenting that “Donald Trump is hitting a nerve in this country… They want to see the wall built.”
Others who performed well were Mike Huckabee, who quipped about same-sex marriage that “the Supreme Court is not the Supreme Being.” Jeb Bush spoke confidently and authoritatively about his solidly conservative record as governor of Florida. Marco Rubio was fresh and energetic, embodying his theme that the election is about the future. Chris Christie was self-confident without an overabundance of ego and talked about governing in Democratic New Jersey. Ted Cruz didn’t disappoint hard-line conservatives, with his clearly expressed views on domestic and foreign policy. Scott Walker spoke about the “big, bold reforms” he’d brought about in Wisconsin. Rand Paul, in addition to antagonistic exchanges with Trump and Christie, made the point that he was a different kind of Republican, citing his filibuster against telephone surveillance programs and his visits to Ferguson, Baltimore and Chicago. Neurosurgeon Ben Carson, although somewhat soft-spoken, called for a stronger military; he also had the best closing: “I’m the only candidate… who has taken out half a brain. But if you go to Washington, you might think somebody got there first.”
In the evening’s first debate at the sub-prime time of 5pm for the seven candidates who did not make the cut for Fox News’ 9pm debate, Carly Fiorina “won it, and she won it going away,” noted Krauthammer, an assessment shared by most commentators. Her answers were crisp and knowledgeable, and her manner authoritative. Her put-down of Trump was skillful and humorous.
In addition, Rick Perry handled himself well, with none of the goofs that knocked him out of the running four years ago. Lindsey Graham did what folks assume he intended to do, which was to focus a spotlight on a need for a more aggressive foreign policy in the Middle East. George Pataki, who dragged the bottom, or close to it, in familiarity and favorability ratings according to Gallup’s survey of Republicans, sounded like someone who knew what he was talking about, and said it very well.
Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal, former US Sen. Rick Santorum and former Virginia Gov. Jim Gilmore all performed well, but none broke out of the pack.