Two debates, 14 candidates (one was not invited and one dropped out) and four combined hours. After the dust settled on a whirlwind evening of accusations, jabs, and a few jokes, it is time to look back and see who benefited the most from last night’s GOP debate, who suffered, and who’s performance still remains a question mark.
When the former-Hewitt-Packard CEO debated during the undercard show on August 6, she impressed enough to see a significant bump in the polls. After last night, expect the same thing as Fiorina did not show signs of intimidation or weakness during her first foray on the main stage opposite Donald Trump & Co. Her responses to questions regarding Trump’s attacks on her, especially regarding her looks in a Rolling Stone interview, drew loud applause as the billionaire businessman looked uncomfortable with each remark.
“I think women all over this country heard very clearly what Mr. Trump said,” Fiorina said to raucous applause at the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library.
She also made sure to get the memorable word in regarding Planned Parenthood’s videos during a long segment of back-and-forth between multiple candidates, including New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie who tried to get the last word with his call to focus the question on Hillary Clinton midway through the GOP debate.
“This is about the character of our nation and if we will not stand up and force President Obama to veto this bill, shame on us,” Fiorina said to wild applause, again, as the segment ended.
The Florida Senator had a hard time gaining traction after the last debate despite performing well. This did not deter Rubio the second time around, though, as he waited patiently for his time and then made every moment of it work to his benefit.
When Trump tried to paint Rubio as an absent senator, saying he had the worst senate record, the junior senator from the Sunshine State did not attack but instead steered the conversation his way.
“You’re right, I have missed some votes, and I’ll tell you why, Mr. Trump,” Rubio started. “Because in my years in the Senate, I’ve figured out very quickly that the political establishment in Washington, D.C., in both political parties is completely out of touch with the lives of our people. That’s why I’m missing votes. Because I am leaving the Senate, I’m not running for re-election, and I’m running for president because I know this – unless we have the right president, we cannot make America fulfill its potential, but with the right person in office, the 21st century can be the greatest era that our nation has ever known.”
Rubio showed that there is still life in his campaign and is ready to take the lead should Trump fail.
Not much had happened for the New Jersey governor before Wednesday night’s debate. He has struggled to get out of the pack and establish himself as the energetic candidate who could take on Democrats and win. During the debate, not only did he remind voters that he was still there, but he found a way to wedge himself in the debate against the outsiders who were busy trading barbs over business records.
“You’re both successful people. Congratulations. You know who’s not successful? The middle class in this country who’s getting plowed over by Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton. Let’s start talking about those issues tonight and stop this childish back-and-forth between the two of you,” Christie said to applause. When he wasn’t trying to steer the conversation to how to defeat Hillary Clinton, he was reminding people that not only was he a federal prosecutor with a strong track record but that he has been an effective governor in a state filled with Democrats.
When he was able to command attention away from others, he made sure to make good use of them, showing off his conservative credentials to voters who view him as too moderate.
“She (Hillary Clinton) believes in the systematic murder of children in the womb to preserve their body parts…in the way that maximizes their value for sale for profit,” Christie said, when talking about the Planned Parenthood videos and the efforts to defund the organization on the federal level. A number of times the governor reminded the public that he was the first pro-life New Jersey governor since Roe v. Wade.
Many saw the former-Florida governor as lacking energy and letting Trump steal the show in the first debate. Wednesday night, Bush responded with his own share of hits against the GOP frontrunner, including flashing his records as standing up to Trump when Bush was governor. But the bigger moments came when it involved his wife and his brother. When Bush was forced to backtrack on his comments at Fiorina, Bush tried to force the real estate mogul to also apologize to his wife, Columba Bush, for the comments Trump made about her during an interview in July.
“To subject my wife into the middle of political conversation was completely inappropriate, and I hope you apologize for that,” Bush said. Trump refused to apologize, but appeared red faced as the governor called him out for his remarks.
Later on, Bush attacked Trump for the businessman’s remarks that George W. Bush did a horrible job as president at the end of his term in 2008, something Jeb Bush did not leave alone.
“You know what? As it relates to my brother, there’s one thing I know for sure. He kept us safe,” Bush said to great applause. “You remember the fire fighter with his arms around it? He sent a clear signal that the United States would be strong and fight Islamic terrorism, and he did keep us safe.”
George W. Bush still enjoys overwhelming support among Republicans and Jeb Bush’s comments can do nothing but help him overcome the Trump wave.
The Wisconsin governor has struggled ever since Trump got into the race. Once the leading contender in Iowa, Walker is now middling in the crowd and needed to wow during Wednesday’s debate to regain his traction. Unfortunately, Walker had to fight to get in a word edgewise throughout the night. He was only asked three questions directly and was given just one right to respond, when Trump attacked him on his record as governor, which gave the GOP star a chance to shine.
“We don’t need an apprentice in the White House. We have one there right now,” he said. Though Walker had a couple of good lines when he had a chance to speak, they were few and too far between to give him a chance to stand out.
The former-Arkansas governor has had a hard time wooing his important demographic: evangelical Christians. Despite his efforts in Kentucky and his attacks against the Supreme Court for its decision on gay marriage, Huckabee has not been able to distinguish himself as worthy to take the mantle again with Texas Sen. Ted Cruz and, surprisingly, Trump taking the bulk of the votes. It is unknown how long Huckabee can stay in the race and wait out a Trump collapse.
The son of Libertarian hero Ron Paul, the Kentucky senator has had a hard time making headlines during the campaign. During most of the evening, Paul tried to focus on the negatives of Trump, attacking the frontrunner for his biting remarks against other candidates’ looks and unequivocally stating that he does not trust the businessman with America’s nuclear code. He did have a moment during a discussion regarding marijuana, being the only candidate who stood firm in favor of legalizing weed, especially medical marijuana. But that was the only time Paul focused on Paul and not someone else.
At the beginning, it looked like it would be TrumpFest 2016, with the bulk of the questions directed at the businessman or at others about the businessman. But then something strange happened, Trump stopped talking. He largely disappeared from the debate for at least a half hour, during which none of the other candidates focused on the frontrunner and instead debated each other over policy nuances. Most of Trump’s remarks were either attacking other candidates, promoting himself as the greatest Republican candidate ever, or talking about the one issue where he has laid out any details: immigration.
But The Donald still dominated the debate overall, having more questions asked than any one else, interrupted the second-most number of times (Fiorina interrupted more) and had the right to respond more times. The first hour and a half was clearly the Trump show. His appearance likely did not win over any new voters, but it is likely he did not lose any support, either.
The retired neurosurgeon has been climbing in the polls, knocking on Trump’s doors in the latest numbers. A lot of that came from his soft-spoken nature during the August 6 debate, projecting him as the reasonable alternative to the bombastic businessman. After Wednesday night’s debate, not much has changed. He still was soft-spoken and he still posed as the reasonable alternative. What is unknown at this point is whether his lack of energy during the debate will harm him or continue to push him forward in the polls. It is likely it will be the latter.
The Texas senator had a hard time getting noticed during the debate, but he made sure his excellent speaking skills stood out. There is little doubt it will force him to change his campaign tactics of buddying up to Trump supports in anticipation the billionaire will eventually fall.
While he was stuck in the undercard debate, Graham was able to stand out among the smaller crowd and flash some teeth with fewer candidates around him. He could benefit from the performance in much the same way that Fiorina did on August 6, but it could also be too late for him to recover.
CNBC hosts the next debate on October 28. It is likely that a few candidates will have bowed out by then as money dries up. The candidates all return to Iowa and New Hampshire for more glad-handing and grassroots building.