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Eye On Candidates
March 4, 2016

Assessing the Detroit GOP Debate

The four remaining Republican candidates debated last night in Detroit, and there are several analysis pieces this morning suggesting who did the best, who fared poorly, and who did or didn’t do what they needed to. One candidate who seemed to get mentioned most often as having a good night was Ohio Gov. John Kasich, such as in this article in Politico:

5 takeaways from the GOP debate

... John Kasich won, sorta. The unvarnished Ohio governor, who nearly carried teensy Vermont on Super Tuesday, seems set to win his always-important home state later this month – though he’s the longest of long shots to win the nomination. Kasich has acquitted himself well at most recent debates, and he was especially effective in Detroit – if simply because he steered clear of the Trump-Rubio-Cruz crash site all night.

While the other three mixed it up, Kasich tried to strike a conciliatory tone – emphasizing his capacity to cut bipartisan deals. And, embracing the steadiness-and-experienced role espoused by Clinton on the Democratic side, he hugged Ronald Reagan who remains the most popular figure in a party largely ignoring his dictate to play nice with other Republicans. “I knew Ronald Reagan,” Kasich said to his noisy companions – echoing Lloyd Bentsen’s famous I-knew-JFK takedown of Dan Quayle in the 1988 veep debate. “You can fill in the rest…”

There’s more than a little hesitancy in that assessment of Kasich, and The Hill gave him a “mixed” grade:

Kasich didn’t field a question until 15 minutes into the debate and was forgotten on stage for long periods of time. 

That’s probably a net positive for him, as he won’t be associated with Trump’s body parts or any of the other ugly exchanges that defined the first half of the debate. 

When Kasich did get to speak, he was usually defending staying in the race or the positions he holds that are to the left of the rest of the field. 

Still, he did it in the way that has gotten him this far -- by steadfastly refusing to attack his rivals, and speaking in the language of compassionate conservatism. 

Kasich received a B-plus from Mark Halperin at Bloomberg Politics, along with the following review:

Flaunted both his governing credentials and levelheaded demeanor, staying determinedly out of the mud and above the fray. Gave a solid performance of strength, sense, charm, and gravitas that was further elevated when contrasted with the three heated squabblers on stage beside him. Some rousing moments recounting his campaign trail and Ohio experiences that will potentially leave a lingering positive impression with Main Street Republican voters.

As these reviews suggest, it was something of a slugfest between the three other candidates. Here’s how The Hill described businessman Donald Trump’s performance after calling him a winner in last night’s event:

Once again, Donald Trump took incoming from every direction. Once again, he gave his supporters exactly what they were looking for…. 

Trump is too quick on his feet for his rivals to land any serious blows, and he never seems to be hurt by changing or explaining away past positions that would be problematic for anyone else. 

It was vintage Trump, and the night may have ended prophetically for him. All of the Republican candidates on stage vowed to support him if he’s the party’s nominee. 

CNN noted, however, that Trump had a rough night with the Fox News moderators, who seemed intent on pinning the frontrunner down with details and examples of his past flip-flops:

Chris Wallace had a real-time fact check queued up when Trump asserted he'd cut $500 billion in spending -- pointing out that his strategies, eliminating the Department of Education and the Environmental Protection Agency (which Trump called the Department of Environmental Protection), would save just a fraction of that amount.

When Trump tried to claim he'd close the gap by negotiating better drug prices through Medicare, a constant talking point of his, Wallace had a second graphic already prepped pointing out that, too, wouldn't get Trump even close to eliminating the deficit….

Megyn Kelly took her shot later on, setting up three clips of Trump taking one policy position and then, days later, taking the opposite position.

Trump was unmoored, insisting he had logical explanations about his reversals on Syrian refugees, the war in Afghanistan and more -- and that by the way, it doesn't matter much anyway.

Texas Sen. Ted Cruz seems to have fared well, and received a B from Halperin along with the following write-up:

Successfully maintained dual agendas throughout the debate: defining his own candidacy and assailing Trump. Allowed Rubio to serve as the chief hostile foil to the billionaire, then picked his own fights with care, always tethering the attacks to tangible issues that voters could digest, and at times scoring points off the front-runner. Absent from the conversation for long stretches, but played to his strengths when he got the conch.

The Hill also lumped Cruz in with the winners of the debate:

Cruz only played a few notes at Thursday night’s debate, but he hit them consistently and with vigor. 

The Texas senator made the case that he’s the only candidate on stage with the possibility of taking down Trump. That argument carried more weight in the wake of his stronger than expected Super Tuesday showing…. 

It was a performance that could help Cruz cement the notion in the minds of some conservatives that he’s the best hope for the anti-Trump crowd, even if many establishment Republicans would have to hold their nose as they pulled the lever for him. 

As for Florida Sen. Marco Rubio, it could have gone better. Much better, as this review from The Atlantic suggests:

Rubio was hoarse and seemed shrunken, chastened, and at sea. He tried to interrupt Trump to mix things up, but was shouted down by Trump—and several times cut off by the moderators, who insisted he let Trump answer his questions.

Ultimately, it isn’t clear how much the debate will change things, however. Here was CNN’s final take:

Trump struggled with policy details, butted in when other candidates were speaking and sparred with the moderators.

So what else is new?...

None of the debates so far have changed the trajectory of the race -- in part because Trump is the master of the debate post-game, finding ways to deflect weak points and suck up media oxygen while branding his foes with nicknames like "Little Marco" and "Lyin' Ted" and claiming victory -- no matter what happened.

Kasich performed well by most analyses, and Trump had a tough night (in terms of his grasp of policy details and consistency being shown as less than ideal), but if past debates are any guide, it will have little impact on how people vote. Which suggests the race is locked into its current trajectory, and it’s not clear what, if anything, might change it at this point.