What a show the first GOP debate was! A rock ’em, sock ’em affair full of heated exchanges, punches, and counterpunches. It was entertaining and informative, for which viewers can thank the Fox News moderators and Donald Trump.
If Republicans were hoping the first debate would help them winnow the field, there’s always next time. None of the top 10 candidates in the prime-time debate had a gaffe. Almost all of them had at least one distinguishing moment. In the undercard debate, Carly Fiorina did well enough that she may have just become the 11th candidate in the mix.
Donald Trump gave the debate passion because he has increased the peril for the other candidates, who are trailing him in the polls. The real estate tycoon has excited the desire for candor in the electorate, and other candidates are trying to show their own version of it. The spark may also be there because he’s insulted so many of his opponents and they want to take him down.
At the start of the debate, the question was whether Trump would play it safe or bring the bombast. There was very little analysis about what he would do with his hands, but right off the bat his hand raising caused an uproar. Trump refused to pledge to support the eventual nominee of the party. He did say that he would support himself. He also declined to pledge that he wouldn’t run as an independent, something many Republicans believe would guarantee a Democratic victory. “I’m, you know, talking about a lot of leverage,” said Trump. When the audience booed, he brought up both hands as if to say, “What?”
It wasn’t the only time he’d do that during the evening in which he called the nation's leaders stupid and occasionally stopped to school his questioners. “Let me just tell you about the lenders,” he said when asked about the $1 billion that he lost in his Atlantic City investments. “First of all, these lenders aren’t babies. These are total killers. These are not the nice, sweet little people that you think, OK?”
The Republican front-runner received a mix of boos and applause throughout the evening. No surprise there. He’s ahead in the polls but also leading his competitors when people are asked which candidate they’d never vote for. So Trump’s challenge was to figure out how to lift the iron ceiling that caps his vote total. There was nothing in his debate performance that suggests he accomplished that.
Trump took it on the chin early. He was on the defensive over his descriptions of women, his donations to Hillary Clinton, and his bankruptcies. Perhaps the hardest problem for him was the underlying question, “When did you actually become a Republican?”
Trump reached with bravado and no apologies. The answer that showed both his strength and his vulnerability was when he was asked about some of his comments regarding women. He was reminded that he’d called women he didn't like “fat pigs,” “dogs,” “slobs,” and “disgusting animals.” Female voters are kind of important, especially against a Democratic nominee who is likely to be a woman. That’s a general-election liability—a glaring one. Trump responded by taking a stand against political correctness. “I don’t frankly have time for total political correctness. And to be honest with you, this country doesn’t have time either.”
That is the kind of answer that thrills his supporters but doesn’t solve the underlying problem. In fact, it may worsen it.
Only Sen. Rand Paul took on Trump directly, but it was mostly lost in the crosstalk. Later, Trump dismissed Paul, “You’re having a hard time tonight.”
Gov. John Kasich defended Trump, even joking that he’d take a donation from him when the questioning turned to the donations Trump had given various candidates. “Donald Trump is hitting a nerve in this country. He is. He’s hitting a nerve,” said Kasich. “People are frustrated, they’re fed up, they don’t think the government’s working for them. And for people who want to tune him out, they’re making a mistake.”
The question after the debate was whether Trump’s act is wearing thin or becoming more attractive. Will the candidates have to take him on more directly?
The other great non–Trump-related bit of theater was an exchange between Paul and Gov. Chris Christie over the use of surveillance techniques. Christie, who pointed out he’d used the Patriot Act as a federal prosecutor, said Paul was just blowing “hot air” in committee rooms. Paul then was in a position to deliver a set-piece line about giving too much power to the president: “I don’t trust President Obama with our records. I know you gave him a big hug, and if you want to give him a big hug again, go right ahead.”
Christie shot back: “Sen. Paul, you know, the hugs that I remember are the hugs that I gave to the families who lost their people on Sept. 11.” He then accused Paul of using his Senate speeches to raise money.
It was exciting. Perhaps the excitement came from two candidates trying to pull themselves up from the bottom of the polls. Perhaps it was a display of genuine passion about issues each man cares about and that are important to the electorate. We could do worse than that.
Who got the better of the Paul-Christie exchange? It was probably a draw, but Christie has the chance to benefit more because he has more room to improve with a larger group of voters. Paul’s defense of the Fourth Amendment was passionate, but he’s already got the constituency for whom that is an abiding concern. Christie may have been able to use the exchange to show people that he’s tough on national security and would let nothing slip on the fight against terrorists. That’s a larger group in the Republican Party. On entitlement reforms and national security, Christie was more commanding than blustery. All those policy speeches he has given have paid off. He sounds like he has a command of the material.
Kasich, the hometown boy, had several good moments. Defending his Medicaid program, he spoke about the obligation to care for those in the shadows of society. When asked about how he would explain his opposition to same-sex marriage if one of his daughters said she was gay, he gave a big-hearted and inclusive response. The Cleveland audience loved it. By the end of the debate, Kasich had thoroughly captured the “compassionate conservative” label.
Sen. Marco Rubio had two strong moments. One was when he explained why he can go toe to toe with Hillary Clinton: “If I’m our nominee, how is Hillary Clinton gonna lecture me about living paycheck to paycheck? I was raised paycheck to paycheck.”
Later he took a question about immigration, which will be a tough issue for him since he worked with Democrats on comprehensive immigration reform, and turned it into a defense of those who try to come to America legally. “And let me tell you who never gets talked about in these debates: the people that call my office, who have been waiting for 15 years to come to the United States. And they’ve paid their fees, and they hired a lawyer, and they can’t get in. And they’re wondering, maybe they should come illegally.”
But Rubio has no executive experience and he looks young. His answers were delivered with force at times, which will test a proposition David Axelrod talked about during Obama’s campaign: If you sound assertive and in command, will people grant you the leadership skills that you've never displayed in your career?
Jeb Bush hopes to be there at the end of this battle, the safe, calm, respectable choice. He played that role Thursday night. His best answers were defending his education record and explaining why Donald Trump’s tone mattered. He said he called out Trump because “I want to win.” He was more passionate than he had been all evening. He had to articulate his argument for his campaign with energy—and because Trump forced him to by acting out and putting him in a position where he had to actually spell out what’s at stake.
Mike Huckabee and Ben Carson each had a moment. Huckabee passionately argued against President Obama’s deal with Iran, and Carson offered an appealing defense of his outside wisdom, as well as a pitch for a colorblind society that appeals to conservatives. “When I take someone to the operating room, I’m actually operating on the thing that makes them who they are. The skin doesn’t make them who they are. The hair doesn’t make them who they are. And it’s time for us to move beyond that.”
That leaves us with Gov. Scott Walker and Sen. Ted Cruz. Their supporters won’t be disappointed. Walker was cautious, offering snippets of his stump speech. Cruz was familiar in his articulation of his principled stances. But neither had a particular breakout moment.
The debate was held in the Quicken Loans Arena, the same one where next summer the GOP will meet to elevate the party’s next nominee. One of them was standing on the debate stage Thursday night. The chances are slim that it will be Donald Trump, but how the party gets there is a long way from being clear. But if Thursday is any indication, the path back to the arena will be action-packed.