The “Thrilla in Ohi-ya” is over and, man, it was quite the show. Both the “Happy Hour” debate earlier in the evening and the main event provided many illuminating moments thanks to terrific, focused questions from Fox News anchors. But here are my quick thoughts right now. The big winners of the night were Sen. Marco Rubio (Fla.) and Carly Fiorina.
Rubio’s profile has diminished in recent months. But any doubts about his ability to fill the stage was dispelled during the main event. From his opening statement, the Sunshine State senator gave crisp and compelling answers that made him the clear winner of the 9 p.m. gathering. Rubio’s presentation Thursday reminded me of his stellar campaign announcement. No, I don’t agree with him on anything. But, I can appreciate a political talent when I see one. Folks, he is one.
Fiorina, the former Hewlett-Packard chief executive, was the clear winner of the 5 p.m. debate. Her knowledge and the forceful way she made her case made me wish she were a part of the Big 10 — even more so after seeing the Big 10. The Fiorina on that stage Thursday was the confident and prepared candidate I saw at that Christian Science Monitor breakfast in April.
Gov. John Kasich (Ohio), enjoying a hometown advantage at the Cleveland debate, did very well. Gov. Chris Christie (N.J.) also did very well. When he was hit with his state’s economic record and downgrades, Christie was prepared and delivered statistics with an “I dare you to challenge me” forcefulness. Former Florida governor Jeb Bush could learn from that example. As for Bush, he did okay. And on the “okay” scale, he was at the high end. Gov. Scott Walker (Wis.), on the other hand, was at the low end of that measure. Both men did what they needed to do, but Bush did it better.
My greatest hope was that famed neurosurgeon Ben Carson would defy my expectations and be the sleeper of the main event. Instead, “gifted hands” played the invisible man. And when Carson did respond to questions, he did so with the urgency of a customer waiting in a long line at Costco. Also, what he had to say made little sense.
And then there was Donald Trump. The Big Apple billionaire roiled the debate from moment one by not promising to support the eventual Republican presidential nominee. He also refused to rule out a third-party candidacy. He attacked critics who were on stage (Sen. Rand Paul), further down the stage (Megyn Kelly) and not on stage (“stupid” politicians). And then he directed an unsolicited barb at Rosie O’Donnell, the actress and comedian with whom he has battled in ugly and public ways.
Trump was crass and unpresidential. I also think his lauding his bankruptcies won’t wear well in the long-run. Trump was not prepared. He had nothing to offer beyond what we’ve heard at every news conference and from-Trump-Tower interview since he announced his candidacy.
Fiorina should have been on the main stage tonight. My fervent hope is that field will winnow enough to allow her to take her rightful place on that stage at the next debate. Republicans could start by draining Trump of his unbelievably high support.
Follow Jonathan on Twitter: @Capehartj