A Tale of Two GOP Debates

Yesterday, the top 17 candidates for the Republican nomination held two debates on Fox News. The earlier afternoon GOP debate felt like a true punishment, performing in an empty auditorium and with the B-team moderators of Bill Hemmer and Martha McCallum.

The prime-time debate between the top 10 candidates had a packed house, the A-team of Chris Wallace and Megyn Kelly (and the B+ tag-along Bret Baier), and the star-power curiosity of Donald Trump meant record ratings.

The afternoon debate featured former Texas governor Rick Perry, former Pennsylvania senator Rick Santorum, Lousisana governor Bobby Jindal, former Hewlett-Packard CEO Carly Fiorina, South Carolina senator Lindsey Graham, former New York governor George Pataki, and former Virginia governor Jim Gilmore.

The happy-hour debaters had more obstacles to overcome, so who rose to the occasion?

1. CARLY FIORINA – She had solid answers for Hillary Clinton, for Donald Trump, and was quick on her feet with policy specifics. She easily won, proving that she deserves to be in prime-time for Round 2.

2. RICK PERRY – He was passionate in providing real answers on border security and immigration problems. He forgot the cardinal rule of not doing laugh lines or applause lines when there’s no audience to oblige, but he didn’t embarrass himself.

3. BOBBY JINDAL – He got out his “they’re turning the American dream into the European nightmare” line in there, but didn’t really have a good answer why his approval rating is under 40% in his home state.

4. RICK SANTORUM – How did the guy who won Iowa in 2012 fall into the kids-table debate? Well, it was a more shallow field back then. When they asked him if his time had passed, he swerved without providing a good enough explanation on why he’s viable in 2016.

5. GEORGE PATAKI – Bland, affable, and his answers largely counted on people not remembering why kind of governor he actually was. He said he wouldn’t have expanded Medicaid as governor of New York, but yeah, the blue-state governor absolutely would have.

6. LINDSEY GRAHAM – He had the demeanor of someone who’d been informed five minutes before the debate that his dog had died. He would send troops back to Iraq, he would put us in perpetual war in the Middle East “so we don’t have to fight them here” and if we don’t elect him, everyone will die. By the time he made his closing statement, I wanted to give him the number for a suicide prevention hotline.

7. JIM GILMORE – Did not justify his presence on the stage. Feels like he’s here as a cashed-in favor because he’s a Fox News contributor.

Next was the prime-time event, and you can see why everyone wanted to be in the top ten, as it garnered about 24 million viewers. (Those are NBA Finals numbers.) The participants were business mogul Donald Trump, former Florida governor Jeb Bush, Wisconsin governor Scott Walker, former Arkansas governor Mike Huckabee, neurosurgeon Ben Carson, Texas senator Ted Cruz, Florida senator Marco Rubio, Kentucky senator Rand Paul, New Jersey governor Chris Christie, and Ohio governor John Kasich.

Bret Baier said he knows people don’t like hand-raising questions, but he asked a hand-raising question anyway. That started things off on a controversial note, as we learned right away that Donald Trump is not backing down on his threat to run as a third-party candidate if he doesn’t win the Republican nomination. (Trump knows that’d guarantee a Hillary Clinton presidency, but he doesn’t care.)

So who actually benefited most from the debate?

1. MARCO RUBIO – He’s slid in the polls the past couple months so it was important to get his face back on-screen and remind people why they liked him in the first place. He was alert, smooth, and in control. The fewer candidates on stage, the better he’ll do.

2. JOHN KASICH – He played to the hometown crowd, but he also came across as the most optimistic, pragmatic candidate on stage.

3. DONALD TRUMP – He just does not give a crap. His answers lack substance, he owns his boorishness, he admits he’s a crony capitalist, and he said that, yeah, he gives money to politicians because then they jump when he tells them to. He told Hillary Clinton to come to his wedding, and she came because hey, he gave her money. Fox News seemed determined to expose him, and they did, and the Frank Luntz post-debate focus-group felt like a stacked deck to trash Trump. (These people were honestly surprised by Trump’s tone? Are you kidding?) I think Trump’s bad for the party overall, but I didn’t see much that would make him lose his nihilistic fans. I really don’t know what wrong he could do to lose them at this point. He’s ratings gold! Who cares if he’s misogynist? (Lots of people, but details, details…)

4. JEB BUSH – It’s too bad his brother was president. He seemed to gain confidence as the night wore on. He didn’t attack any fellow candidates; he played grown-up.

5. BEN CARSON – Had some good laugh lines. Seems like a nice guy, but maybe not enough experience to be president.

6. TED CRUZ – He had the easiest questions of the night, and he has this way of faking sincerity that I find off-putting. He answers every question like he’s saying something profound, like inspirational music is playing in the background.

7. SCOTT WALKER – Blended into the background for the most part. Only time he showed personality was when he would interrupt. He said that he was against abortion even to save the life of the mother. But he also seemed to be playing a Romney-esque long game. Let the others fight it out.

8. CHRIS CHRISTIE & RAND PAUL – Neither man really benefited from their tussle. Christie looked like he was pro-surveillance, while Paul looked like he’s big on platitudes but small on action. Paul also wound up with the least amount of speaking time.

10. MIKE HUCKABEE – His folksiness went to some weird places when he said we need to go after pimps and prostitutes for tax revenue. Not buying what he’s selling.

The Fox News moderators were tough, and the gauntlet has been thrown to the Democrats. They won’t have their first debate until October, which either signifies they want to make it an easy road for Hillary, or they know their field is much thinner. Or both.

My top three at this moment are Marco Rubio, John Kasich and Carly Fiorina. And if I need to pick a fourth… Gov. Nikki Haley.

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