With the second debates concluded, plenty of commentary has already been written about the night’s winners. Mary Katharine has an excellent rundown of the performance of the consensus winner, Carly Fiorina, who did a masterful job of grasping policy and connecting personally. Frankly, while Fiorina displayed an encyclopedic knowledge of military needs and other foreign-policy issues, her best moment of the night may have come in this rebuttal to Rand Paul’s contention that marijuana use is a victimless crime. Agree with her or not, this was a powerful moment and perhaps the most raw on a personal basis as we saw all night:
As I mentioned on Twitter immediately after the far-too-long debate, Fiorina was my choice for sole winner, although I thought others did much to improve their position. Scott Walker came out more assertive, refused to back down to an ill-informed attack from Donald Trump, and repeatedly reminded people of his accomplishments in Wisconsin. Chris Christie came across as the most personable on stage, perhaps save Mike Huckabee. Marco Rubio had to fight to get screen time but made the most of it. And Ted Cruz … well, put Ted Cruz in a debate and there’s no way to keep him down.
But who lost ground from the debate? Donald Trump had the most to lose, but probably didn’t do any real damage. His vaccine-causes-autism answer was shockingly ignorant, and his “sophomoric, junior high” antics (a quote from Rand Paul) would torpedo any other candidate, but don’t expect Trump’s followers to defect en masse, at least not from this performance. Paul, Huckabee, and Jeb Bush didn’t do any damage to themselves either, although Bush seemed to stammer through some opportunities to shine.
In my opinion, the only two who did damage to themselves were John Kasich and Ben Carson. When Republicans discussed tearing up the deal with Iran, Kasich passionately rebutted them, saying America needed to wait to see whether the Iranians would cheat before acting so as to maintain partnerships with our allies. The entire problem with the deal is that it’s set up for Iran to cheat, a point Cruz makes masterfully while demolishing an angry and fidgeting Kasich, who never really recovered from this moment:
Carson’s entire performance seemed weak and out of place on stage. There’s much to be said for a soft-spoken politician, but not for a passive and disconnected one. Carson struggled on practically every question except when rebutting Trump on the supposed vaccine-autism link, and reiterated his opposition not just to the war in Iraq but to the decision to invade Afghanistan at the time, too. When pressed on what his alternative would be, Carson said he’d advised George W. Bush to “use the bully pulpit” to fight against terrorism, a suggestion that a number of people on stage shredded, most significantly Marco Rubio and Chris Christie.
Kasich hasn’t gained much traction yet in the race, so the damage to his standing may be minimal. Carson, however, was peaking in the polls. Don’t be surprised if over the next couple of weeks that Carson’s support starts shifting to Fiorina.
The first debate was also lively, but probably irrelevant. Bobby Jindal showed the most energy and had the best tactical moments of the debate, while Lindsey Graham had by far the best personal connection and focus on his top issue, the war against radical Islam. Neither had the kind of breakout performance needed to force their way to the next main stage, but perhaps one of them will hang around long enough for the inevitable exodus from the race by some in the top 11.
What did you think? Take our Survey Monkey non-scientific reader poll. Note: You will need to scroll down to get to all the questions and the submit button.
Update: The poll will close at 5 ET, and I’ll publish the results in a new post this evening.