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Eye On Candidates
October 29, 2015

Christie, Cruz and Rubio Lead Debate Performances

The media this morning are filled with reactions and assessments of the GOP candidate performances in last night’s debate, and as usual there’s a clear consensus on a couple of candidates as far as who won and who lost, and a range of conflicting opinions on several others. Here is part of what National Journal had to say:

The Whole Room Hated the Media, but Who Else Lost the Republican Presidential Debate?


Marco Ru­bio

Even Rubio’s closest confidants wouldn’t have believed the debate could go so well. The senator from Florida lampooned questions about missed votes in the Senate, convinced the audience that criticism of his personal finances were proof of a media double standard, and expertly flayed his chief rival and former mentor when the two men confronted each other…

For a candidate who has excelled in two previous debates, Wednesday night’s showdown in Colorado was perhaps Rubio’s best performance yet—and it will surely increase the growing belief that he is now the undisputed front-runner of the Republican presidential primary.

Ted Cruz

If the senator from Texas was looking for a breakthrough moment, he might have found it Wednesday. Cruz took a question about raising the debt ceiling and turned it into a platform to bash journalists for the way they’ve conducted the GOP debates—a surefire crowd pleaser to the conservative voters who love few things more than bashing the media….

Cruz, like Rubio, has been anointed one of the new front-runners of the GOP presidential primary. He demonstrated that he deserved such a vaunted standing Wednesday.

Chris Christie

About three-quarters of the way through the debate, the New Jersey governor had offered a solid but unspectacular performance. And then an unexpected subject gave him a golden opportunity to reinforce his campaign’s message of serious straight talk on the big issues.

When the conversation turned to regulating a controversial website that offers games of fantasy football, Christie pounded.

“Are we really talking about getting government involved in fantasy football?” Christie asked, drawing laughs from the audience. “We have—wait a second, we have $19 trillion in debt. We have people out of work. We have ISIS and al-Qaida attacking us. And we’re talking about fantasy football? Can we stop?”

Christie has shown well in all three debates. The previous two didn’t help him much in the polls. Perhaps the third time is the charm.

Those three seem to be in everybody’s list of top performers last night. Over at Bloomberg Politics, Mark Halperin gave both Rubio and Cruz an A-minus, the two highest grades of the evening, and Christie received a B+.

Former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush was generally seen to have lost last night, either because of an attack on Rubio that seemed to fall flat (or at least that was well deflected by Rubio) or simply because by not being among the winners of the debate, he lost. Halperin gave Bush a D+ and described his performance this way:

Got cut off early by the moderators when he tried to break in and disappeared from the fray for a long spell. Then returned with his first face-to-face pre-planned attack on Rubio and utterly failed. Had trouble sustaining the tone he wanted during his answers, successfully interjecting or grabbing the spotlight (thus ending up with scant stage time), or selling himself as the most qualified to be president. A weak, non-alpha performance in every way that will panic some of his donors and will not win him any new converts.

That seems to be the consensus view. Here is the take in The Hill:

Bush’s performance was almost universally panned, and with good reason. The early front-runner in the race has faded badly and needed a big moment here to re-establish his momentum. Searching for it, he overstretched with an attack on Rubio, contending that he was so seldom in the Senate that he was treating it like “a French work week.” But Bush got caught by an effective counter-punch and the fight seemed to go out of him after that. He was virtually invisible for long stretches. Aides at the debate voiced frustration that he did not get more airtime, but Bush was not an assertive presence. The concern that already existed among his supporters and donors will surely now be deepening toward panic.

Most of the evaluations of businessman Donald Trump and retired neurosurgeon Ben Carson tended towards the belief that both managed to maintain their positions without doing much to advance themselves, which is a pretty good outcome for frontrunners. Halperin gave Carson a B-plus and Trump a B, and here was National Review’s assessment of Carson:

The Spin: Carson said he “absolutely” did what he needed to do.

 Reality: Carson won’t lose votes after tonight, but he certainly won’t gain many either. He was largely absent at the beginning of the night, and failed to make his current national lead seem like a sure bet for the rest of the race.

National Journal suggested it wasn't terribly impressed by Carson, putting him in the “who knows” category regarding his performance, but also noted it doesn't have a very good track record reviewing Carson:

We’re go­ing to pass on pre­dict­ing how Re­pub­lic­ans will re­act to the new lead­er of the Iowa polls. Nor­mally, we’d say that the re­tired neurosur­geon lacked en­ergy, a sure grasp on the is­sues, and a sense of how he could dif­fer­en­ti­ate him­self from his op­pon­ents.

But we thought that about Car­son dur­ing the last two de­bates—and both times, Car­son only rose in the polls.

The con­ser­vat­ive fa­vor­ite did have a few nice mo­ments par­ry­ing ques­tions about ques­tion­able en­dorse­ment deals, turn­ing the in­quir­ies in­to evid­ence that the lib­er­al me­dia was out to get him. And to the ex­tent his re­cent rise has come in part from at­tract­ing the kind of Re­pub­lic­ans who once backed Trump, any time he can call him­self an avowed en­emy of polit­ic­ally-cor­rect cul­ture, as he did sev­er­al times Wed­nes­day, it’s a win.

It seems un­likely that Car­son’s rise to the top of the field stopped Wed­nes­day. But for a can­did­ate who has de­fied pre­dic­a­tion so far, it’s hard to know for sure.

The Hill offered the following on Trump, after calling his performance “mixed”:

Trump for the first time failed to dominate the debate proceedings. Given his temperament, he is unlikely to be happy about that. One important unknown in the race is what happens to Trump’s appeal if he comes to seem like just another candidate, albeit an extroverted and colorful one. On the other hand, Trump got off some clean shots, especially countering an early attack from Ohio Gov. John Kasich. The business mogul, whose downfall has been predicted at every turn, also once again escaped any scathing embarrassment.

Along with Bush, Kentucky Sen. Rand Paul showed up in a lot of “loser” lists last night. A couple of those assessing last night’s event didn’t even bother to include him (former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee came in for similar treatment), and those who did weigh in weren’t terribly impressed. Here is the take from National Review:

Rand Paul

The Spin: He’s the most fiscally conservative of the bunch, and did what he could with the time he had. “He had almost no time, but every time he demonstrated his key points he needed to make, whether that was the flat tax or auditing the fed,” said campaign manager Chip England. “He was very efficient and the most substantive.”

Reality: Paul’s performance was forgettable. This main-stage debate could very well be his last.

Mike Huckabee

The Spin: He “shaped the debate” on entitlements. “His points on Social Security and Medicare showed that these are issues he hits home runs on,” said his media consultant, Bob Wickers. “He stands alone on these things by saying, ‘If you’ve paid into the program, you will be taken care of. There’s not going to be any tinkering.’” “He plays by the rules, but still managed to be energetic and get his points across. He handled the moderators with class,” Wickers added.

Reality: This was Huckabee’s strongest debate thus far. It’s up to his team to capitalize on the momentum he gained tonight.

Businesswoman Carly Fiorina and Ohio Gov. John Kasich generally were seen to have done well in the debate, although there is a range of opinions on both of them, and nobody thought they were among the top two or three. The Hill lumped Fiorina in with the winners and Kasich in among those with mixed grades:

The former Hewlett-Packard CEO may not have electrified the crowd as she did during her first outing on the prime-time stage six weeks ago in Simi Valley, Calif. But Fiorina is clearly one of the most polished communicators on the stage. She seemed to have carved out a more defined niche than before as well, circling back in her answers to her belief that government involvement tends to exacerbate problems rather than ease them. Fiorina's poll numbers have fallen significantly from their highs in the wake of the California debate, however. She had a good night in Boulder, but whether she can reverse her decline is a different question….

The Ohio governor very obviously decided going into tonight’s debate that he needed to make an impact and couldn’t fade into the background as he had at the September bout in California. He came out of the gate forcefully, criticizing his rivals without naming them — though the implicit targets were clearly Trump and Carson — for “fantasy tax schemes.” But Trump fired back by reminding viewers of Kasich’s work for Lehman Brothers and his lowly poll ratings. Kasich sought to counter, but he largely faded as the night wore on.

Over at National Review, the view was somewhat flipped on these two:

Carly Fiorina

The Spin: No spin. For the second debate in a row, the Fiorina campaign did not have anyone in the spin room. “Carly showed once again that she is the strongest candidate to take on Hillary Clinton next year,” deputy campaign manager Sarah Isgur Flores texts National Review. ​

Reality: Fiorina has struggled to maintain the polling surge that followed her breakthrough performance at the second GOP debate, and tonight likely won’t help. While there were no major slip-ups, Fiorina struggled to stay relevant in a debate focused solely on economic policy. Her outsider status has won her fans along the campaign trail so far, but tonight, battling a host of candidates with stronger policy chops, she looked unprepared….

John Kasich

The Spin: Kasich was the adult on the stage. “I got to the point where I was sort of fed up,” Kasich told reporters. “I think people need to know what the truth is from somebody who has the experience. . . . And that’s what I tried to do tonight.”

Reality: This was the performance Kasich needed. With the House pushing through sweeping budget legislation on Wednesday, Kasich was able to tie current events directly to his record as the field’s chief budget guy in a way that mattered. Kasich indicated before the debate that a fight was coming, and tonight he threw punches that stuck. He’s got the experience, but if he wants to stay relevant, he’ll have to start communicating it in a less combative tone.

As with past debates, it will take at least a week for any impact to be seen in the poll numbers of the debate participants. But if there’s a single prediction likely to prove true, it’s that Chris Christie helped himself the most in last night’s debate.