The early debate wrapped up without an earth-shaking performance, or tragic gaffe on the part of any of the participants. As night fell on the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library, the stage was occupied again with this time the top eleven GOP hopefuls. The prime time debate was designed to be a TV show with Donald Trump its star, but it was Carly Fiorina who ended up stealing the show. Jeb Bush, Chris Christie and Marco Rubio also played prominent roles in this drama.
The format was designed to produce conflict between the candidates and it did, but sometimes in ways host network CNN barely imagined. Trump eagerly obliged by providing some reality show style conflict launching a surprise, preemptive attack against Senator Rand Paul, suggesting that Paul should have been voted of the island after the last debate.
Paul, for his part, suggested that Trump was a sophomoric individual who resorted to junior high style teasing. He questioned whether Trump was even a true conservative. He was not prepared to say his opponent was fit to go anywhere near the nuclear “button” when asked.
After the ice was broken with Trump’s attack on Paul, the rest lined up to take swipes at the billionaire real estate mogul. The notable exception was Dr. Ben Carson, who engage with Trump only when forced.
Jeb Bush on the other hand, needed little encouragement to engage with the Donald. He took exception to statements by Trump suggesting that having a Mexican-born wife might be clouding his judgment when it came to the matter of immigration. Indignant, Bush offered him an opportunity to apologize to his wife who was sitting in the audience. None was forthcoming.
Not all the drama centered around Mr. Trump, Chris Christie and Rand Paul continued their dispute over civil liberties from the first debate. Christie earlier in the week suggested that if he were president, the party would be over in states like Colorado and Washington that decriminalized the use of marijuana for recreational use. Christie argued the Supremacy Clause of the Constitution, while Paul invoked the Tenth Amendment, guaranteeing state’s rights. Carly Fiorina jumped in before a winner could be decided. She made heartfelt statement that drug users should be treated, not imprisoned, mentioning how she lost her daughter to drug addiction.
On a couple of occasions, the candidates actually found the time to attack the Democrats. Everyone opposed the Iran nuke deal, the only question was how long it would be before they tore the documents to shreds. Every aspect to the Obama administration foreign policy was challenged, from our relationship with Russia to the current refugee crisis in Europe caused by the civil war in Syria.
When the topic of one of the questions was Russia’s involvement in Syria, Trump have his usual line that he would hire the best military minds to advise him. He suggested that we should leave Assad and ISIS, both enemies of the U.S., fight it out and come in at the end to pick up the pieces. A sensible policy maybe, but Marco Rubio and Carly Fiorina gave much more well thought out and detailed answers that showed a greater degree of understanding and preparation.
The climactic moment came when Fiorina was asked to respond to a comment Trump made to Rolling Stone Magazine about her appearance where he said in part: “Look at that face! Would any one vote for that?” He claimed later that he simply meant her persona.
Her answer, one that would echo in the news cycle for days to come was, “I think women all over this country heard very clearly what Mr. Trump said.” Trump was taken aback, and complimented her on her looks, saying she was a beautiful woman. On the split screen, you could see Carly give a look of pure disdain as his belated compliment fell very flat. Game, set, and match to Fiorina.
At the end of the night those in the second tier debate no doubt have some hard choices to make. If they stay in they’ll continue to hope and seek that one moment that could earn them more air-time. They’ll get to know three states really well, and try as Senator Santorum did last time around to string together some early primary wins, places, or shows. All of this while hoping no one else in the race runs away with it.
Trump didn’t win the debate, but as the front-runner he didn’t need to. The only numbers that matter to him are poll numbers, so for the time-being his primary concern is not to lose his ultra-loyal base of support.
Much the same can be said for Bush as he has plenty of money at his disposal. His only worry is if another true contender emerges. Fiorina looks like she’s ready to assume that title. (A new, post-debate CNN/ORC poll has her at 14% among Republican and Republican leaning voters.)
Rubio, Cruz, and Christie, who also had a good night, run little risk of talking themselves out of the race, only spending themselves out.
For Carly Fiorina—to the victor go the spoils, the spoils in her case being the inevitable surge of campaign cash that follows a great debate performance. In a little over a month, Republican voters have gone from not knowing her, to knowing her, to liking her.
The rest of the candidates will need that ‘Hail Mary’ pass, that one moment in the spotlight where they exceed all expectations. There is still plenty of time, but the ‘plenty’ part is running out.