The big winner of the early debate was plainly Carly Fiorina who was poised and pointed, slapping down Donald Trump for taking advice from Bill Clinton. (“I didn’t get a phone call from Bill Clinton before I jumped in the race. Did any of you guys get a phone call from Bill Clinton? I didn’t. Maybe it’s because I didn’t give money to the [Clinton] Foundation or donate money to his wife’s Senate campaign.”) More importantly, she showed considerable prowess on foreign policy and cyberterrorism. She is likely to get a boost from her performance, further embarrassing liberal critics who declared she was unfit to run for president. Also strong was former Texas governor Rick Perry who stressed his economic record and efforts to secure the border. (“I think that the record of the governor of the last 14 years of the 12th largest economy in the world is just the medicine America’s looking for. 1.5 million Jobs created during the worst economic time this country has had since the Great Depression while the rest of the country lost 400,000 jobs. We’re talking about a state that moved graduation rates forward from 27th in the nation to second highest.”)
As for the “A” team, with the exception of Donald Trump, most showed themselves to be serious contenders and well rehearsed. Trump started off with a refusal to pledge to support the nominee and got roundly booed. (Sen. Rand Paul, whose campaign is in total disarray, chose to jump into to attack Trump as buying all sorts of candidates.) Asked to disclose his information that the Mexican government was sending criminals across border repeated his assertion, but no facts. Responding to a question about sexist statements, he declared the country suffered from too much political correctness, drawing hisses when he said he wouldn’t be so nice to Megyn Kelly since he was not being so nice to him. His most egregious moments may have been his defense of a single-payer system and his insistence that he gave money to liberal Democrats who did what he told them to do. It was cringe-worthy, as was his defense of multiple bankruptcies and his attempt to justify his flip-flops on issues like abortion. His volume was high, his content low. If anyone thought there was a serious candidate beneath all that hair, they were disappointed. His bombast verged on self-parody, perhaps demonstrating that a blowhard entertainer isn’t the best bet for president. He showed that his downfall will ultimately be his own obnoxious personality and lack of sane policies.
Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) started strong denying that the most experienced candidate would win (if so, he argued, Hillary Clinton will win) but declaring the race would be about the future. He argued Hillary Clinton wouldn’t be able to lecture him about living paycheck to paycheck. He gave an equally strong issue on immigration, emphasizing that legal immigrants are being shortchanged and that we need to secure the border.
Former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush was polished and error free, defending his immigration views and support for school standards, reiterating his opposition to federally-imposed curriculum reminding the audience of his considerable conservative achievements. His best moment came with a defense of a pro-growth agenda with a goal of 4 percent growth.
Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Tex.) patted himself on the back for not getting along with others, speaking with excessive deliberation as if he was saying something of profound importance. Cruz mouthed platitudes about fighting the Islamic State but he gave no specifics about how he would do it. (His notion that air power alone can win the war is foolish and has been rejected by virtually every official and independent foreign policy expert.)
New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie touted his economic record and stuck by his tough stance on anti-terrorism, getting into a shouting match with Rand Paul and accusing him of blowing hot air while he was busy defending Americans from terrorists. He also lowered the boom on Huckabee for suggesting we can’t touch Social Security or that cutting lawmakers’ retirement benefits would solve the problem of runaway retirements. He was specific and tough on foreign policy, admonishing Rand Paul who insisted we should eliminate all foreign aid including that to Israel. (Explaining he had no “particular animus against Israel” was surely his worst moment.)
Gov. Scott Walker cheered his own pro-life record and giving a serviceable answer on strengthening our Sunni alliances. Mike Huckabee gave a long and rambling answer on abortion, seeming to suggest a president had the authority to disregard the Supreme Court. Ben Carson seemed tentative and out of his depth, citing “tithing” as the basis for his tax code. Ohio Gov. John Kasich got in an effective tribute to inclusiveness and the need for policies to help the poor and those on the margins. In a sign have how far things have come even in the GOP, Kasich was cheered for saying he would support one of his daughters if she were gay. He was among the most positive and optimistic in tone, showing why he has won over so many non-Republicans in his state.
Early on the “debate” was not much of a debate, but rather a series of disconnected and discrete policy statements for much of the 90 minutes. As the evening went on and the candidates were implored to interact, the conversation sharpened. The questions were well chosen and sharply phrased, with the exception of awkward requests for the candidates to talk about whether God has given them a to do list if they become president. As a result the answers they received were — aside from Trump — generally high-minded and reasoned. That said, it did highlight Trump’s clownishness and allow serious contenders — especially Rubio, Bush, Kasich and Christie — to shine. In their closing comments the ex-governors and governors in particular were impressive in reciting their accomplishments and experience while Rubio delivered his telltale, inspirational tribute to the American dream. Along with Carly Fiorina’s superb showing in the afternoon debate their performances offered GOP voters reassurance that the party has many serious contestants.