All 10 Candidates in the Prime-Time Republican Debate, Reviewed
If there was one overarching takeaway from tonight’s first presidential debate in Cleveland, it’s that the Republican Party, at least from a ratings perspective, made a huge mistake limiting the number of debates this election cycle. Whether you liked any, all or none of the candidates speaking tonight, it was absolutely undeniable that this was the most entertaining presidential debate since James K. Polk whacked Henry Clay over the head with a lamp post. Matters settled down in the second hour—how could they not?—but for the first hour, this was political theater of the highest order. They should have these nightly.
And it wasn’t just Donald Trump. And despite the requisite amount of absurdity, it wasn’t all pointless bluster, either. The heated exchange between Chris Christie and Rand Paul might have been electric to watch, but it was also about a legitimate, powerful difference between how the two men see the world; deep down, it was actually about policy. There were several moments like that, often driven by increasingly sharp and inquisitive questions from the Fox News hosts. (For the first half, at least; the second hour devolved into softball platitudes about how God spoke to them and the candidates liked the Iran deal. Spoiler alert: they didn’t.)
But there was of course Trump, whose presence was often felt even when he was off-screen and silent. (Which was rare.) Maybe this debate will raise his poll numbers, maybe it will drop them, who can even guess anymore? But just being in the room ramped up almost everyone’s desire and need to be seen, to be heard, to entertain. If they’re all like this, none of us are going to make it to Iowa.
Here’s a look at how each candidate fared.
It probably wouldn’t be wise for Bush to put up any banners proclaiming this, but for now: Mission accomplished. For a moment early on it looked like we might have a direct Bush-Trump confrontation—and Bush’s posture in the moment made it clear he would give no quarter—but that moment passed, and Bush was able to stay out of any direct fire and look like the adult in the room he so eagerly wants the party to see him as. I didn’t believe anyone had ever actually called him “Veto Corleone” either, but apparently it’s true; I still doubt anyone has ever called him that twice other than Bush himself. But Bush’s biggest moment called back to the built-to-trip-up-Trump question that started the debate: When he looked around the stage and said, “I want to win, and I want someone on this stage, or the 5 p.m. stage earlier, to win.” Bush’s goal is to hope the nomination process is like this debate: Fiery and compelling at the beginning before settling into sanity and platitudes by the end. So far so good.
This was the first time most of America had ever seen Carson—unless they saw the TV-movie in which Cuba Gooding Jr. played him, which is unlikely—and he acquitted himself perfectly fine. He seemed a little nervous at first, and he seemed to feel comfortable staying out of the combat and above the fray. He remained quiet and calm throughout, which in a wild debate like this one would seem like a detriment but ended up working to his advantage; the doctor had a comforting bedside manner. He wouldn’t have been anybody’s pick to be the one candidate to speak in the third person, but there he was with, “Carson doesn’t believe in fighting stupid wars!” He has a tendency to say incredibly divisive, controversial things in a way that almost sounds innocuous; he not only endorsed waterboarding, he also seemed to promise even harsher interrogation techniques that he wouldn’t “broadcast”…but it didn’t come across nearly as intense as it does when typed. Can I say that it’s a relief that he is the only candidate to separate conjoined twins? Can I hope he’s the only one who has tried?
The New Jersey governor was at the center of two flame-ups tonight—the Paul one was the louder of the two, but he had a good one with Mike Huckabee, too—but this was still a subdued Christie. And, I’d argue, it was an appealing one: Christie had the Regular Guy mode dialed up higher than Bully tonight. He was detailed, prepared, rational, and calm throughout. It still feels like Christie’s moment has passed—he just feels a lot less daring than he did three years ago—but he was on his game tonight. There was no real breakthrough moment, though; if either of his tussles would have been with Trump rather than Paul (whom he seems to legitimately loathe) and Huckabee, he might have had one.
If there was a loser tonight—and there probably wasn’t, but if there were—it was probably Cruz, who at times felt like the boring, insincere Trump: He talks about the “Washington cartel” and how the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff talks “nonsense,” but never in a way that makes you believe he wouldn’t still cozy up to any of them if he had the chance. Cruz hasn’t quite gotten past his inherent callowness. When he says that if you wage jihad on America, you “sign your own death warrant,” well, you certainly believe that he believes that, but you also understand why your Jihad Joes might not immediately start quaking in their boots. Still, he has a plaintive insistence when he speaks that keeps you listening; you can see why he was such a successful debater and how he can capture a room. Unfortunately, you can’t capture a room when you’re not on screen, and Cruz vanished for a long portion of the second hour, leaving him incapable of gathering much momentum or traction.
This version of Huckabee is a lot less homespun and Scripture-quoting than the last version. This one says the president should evoke the 5th and 14th Amendments and, apparently, arrest (I think?) Planned Parenthood doctors for “selling body parts like a Buick.” His “the purpose of the military is to kill people and break things” line—apparently a direct Rush Limbaugh quote—sounds like something from Dr. Strangelove. And where did that “pimps and prostitutes” line bit come from? This is a punchy, pugnacious Huckabee who barely god into Scripture at all. We saw a bit of the light, funny Huckabee with a Trump joke at the end that felt a little outdated by the time he used it but still earned the biggest laughs of the night.
The Ohio governor’s whole announcement strategy was based on getting him into this debate, and boy, did it work. The raucous crowd cheered everything he said—you know this would be his night when he received a standing ovation just for showing up—and he was on his game the whole evening. He successfully shed, at least for a couple of hours, that “this year’s Huntsman” label, even getting away with defending welfare and “handouts” to the poor. He also was the exact right person to ask the gay-marriage question to; after stumbling at first, he revealed he’d recently been to a gay-marriage ceremony, something that would have earned boos eight years ago but was applauded this time. (Imagine the different tone the debate takes, especially to potential moderates, if Carson or Cruz is asked that question.) One wonders if that question will come up again in a Republican debate. Kasich also appeared to win the Trump primary: Trump was visibly cheering for Kasich at several times throughout. All told: It was an excellent night for Kasich, in front of a hot crowd who was rooting for him.
His battle with Christie was riveting television rooted in real political philosophy: You can come away from the discussion understanding where both sides were honestly coming from, which, at a debate, is like finding a marmoset in the wild. He was the first to go after Trump, claiming he wasn’t a true conservative when he admitted he might run as a third-party candidate, which is an odd stance to take for a guy whose father once did the very same thing. Paul’s libertarian views were evident throughout, but he kept finding ways to try to make the more palatable to the Republican audience, succeeding at keeping the transition seamless most of the time. One time he didn’t: Pivoting a question about gay marriage to a question about guns out of nowhere. It wasn’t quite as pandering as “machine gun bacon,” but it was up there.
As always, he was smooth in his answers and was prepared and sane and normal and pleasant. (Though he is not the first person on stage we thought would toss out “El Chapo.”) He’s a clear crossover candidate and an obvious talent. Unfortunately for him, he’s not in a position in the polls where he can coast and hope for everyone to settle down; he’s arguably third in that spot, behind Bush and Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker. He’s a sane campaigner who needs an insane moment to catapult him forward, and he’s not the sort of speaker who aims for those; having his old mentor Bush in the race does hurt him. (An attempt by the moderators to contrast the two didn’t really work.) He had a softball small-business question cued up him for him so easily that he nearly dug a hole in the ground revving up to answer it, and if this was the first time you saw Rubio, you were impressed by him. But there were 10 people on that stage, and Rubio is not one of the three or four you’re talking about right now.
Bless his heart, the whole debate was stacked against him from the get-go—at one point, typical Trump couldn’t pretend this wasn’t the case and let loose a “these guys don’t like me” after a Megyn Kelly question—and he still made sure he had a blast. Raising his hand at the beginning, for a question clearly meant to embarrass him, probably only won him points; the typical Trump voter wants him to be the only one on stage with his hand up, no matter what they’re talking about. So he gave everybody the show they wanted, whether it was hammering Rosie O’Donnell or pointing out (rightly) that “no one would be talking about immigration if it weren’t for me" or denigrating Rand Paul for “having a hard night tonight” or saying that America’s leaders are dumber than Mexico’s. (My favorite Trump line, for reasons I can’t put my finger on: “We need strength, energy, quickness, and brain in this country.”) And let us not forget the border wall’s Big Beautiful Door. Or Hillary Clinton attending his wedding because he told her to because he gave her money. He also gave his supporters plenty of red meat. His response to Kelly’s question about calling women “fat pigs” was “this country doesn’t have time for political correctness” was nonsensical—was Trump too busy fighting off terrorists to use literally any other term on the planet than “fat pig?”—but right up the alley of what Trump is going for. He seemed to tire in the second half, even getting a little bored (his closing statement was brief, repetitive and exhausted), but he provided so much juice in the first hour that, at some point, they might just let him moderate this thing himself. Did any of this earn him or cost him any votes? Who knows? Who can possibly tell at this point? It was The Trump Show. We are all merely witnesses.
Walker’s not-insubstantial, and quite handy, skill at answering questions in a way that’s actively too dull for a challenging followup served him well tonight. He has his talking points and he sticks to them rigidly, often even silently counting them on his hands, as if to remind himself. He is also a world-class nodder: If someone hasn’t come up with a Scott Walker Nodding at Things meme yet, it’s coming. He made no news and caused himself no trouble, even adeptly deflecting the debate’s lone Black Lives Matter question. (A lesser candidate, like a Martin O’Malley, falls into the White Lives Matter Too trap. Walker didn’t.) He even sneaked in a groaner of a Clinton e-mail joke. He is pleasantly boring, biding his time, offending no one, hanging around. He’ll be pressed harder later in the campaign. But this wasn’t the night for that. This wasn’t the night for anything but Trump. And boy did it ever deliver.