A quick review of media analysis of last night’s debate among the 10 leading Republican presidential contenders suggests multiple debaters “won,” if winning is simply defined as improving the candidate’s position or preserving their support while not committing any serious gaffes. Here is how The Hill assessed several candidates:
[Ohio Gov. John] Kasich made it into the debate by the skin of his teeth. But the Ohio governor delivered a strong performance in his home state with comments about reaching out to “people who live in the shadows,” effectively making the case that he could expand the GOP’s base of support. The fact that any half-good answer from him was met with loud applause from the local crowd didn’t hurt either….
[New Jersey Gov. Chris] Christie has struggled in the shadows of “Bridgegate” and conservative dissatisfaction with some of his policies. But the New Jersey governor has always been a talented debater, and he showed that in Cleveland. His attack on Sen. Rand Paul (Ky.) as a politician “blowing hot air” on national security was one of the most powerful verbal punches thrown all night.
Expectations were high for [Texas Sen. Ted Cruz], who was a champion debater during his time at Princeton University. Cruz committed no gaffes, but neither did he have any standout moments. Cruz is in the middle of the field in polling, and it’s tough to see how Thursday's debate might notably change his fortunes.
[Former Florida Gov. Jeb] Bush delivered an unexpectedly uncertain performance, never really asserting himself and being overshadowed not just by Trump but also by candidates who lag far behind the former Florida governor in polling, including Christie and Kasich. The vulnerabilities that Bush skeptics identify seem as deep, if not deeper, after the debate. His problems among conservatives on issues such as immigration and education remain, as do worries that his deliberative, sometimes-ponderous style is ill-suited to the heat of a presidential race.
[Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker] faded into the background for much of the debate. That is especially damaging for him because it feeds an existing perception that he lacks the star power for a successful White House run. At worst, Walker’s insipid performance could prompt memories of Tim Pawlenty, another Midwestern governor who entered a presidential race with high hopes four years ago but floundered amid suggestions that he was too bland.
Other “winners” according to The Hill included businessman Donald Trump and Florida Sen. Marco Rubio, while former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee finished with a “mixed” grade. Joining Bush and Walker in the “losers” category were Kentucky Sen. Rand Paul and retired neurosurgeon Ben Carson.
Other analysts come to differing opinions. Politico’s Glenn Thrush wasn’t impressed with Trump, writing “Trump’s act is wearing thin – especially with women,” and suggesting Paul did what he needed to do in the debate. Alex Roarty at National Journal generally agrees with The Hill analysis, citing Trump, Kasich, and Rubio as the “winners” although he dropped Cruz into the “losers” category, arguing he “gets graded on a curve—and not well: This should be the former college debater's best format, and a handful of his rivals had a better night. Worse yet for the senator from Texas was Trump's performance, which suggested that the billionaire—and his hold over the conservative voters Cruz covets—won't fade from the race anytime soon.”
Not everyone was impressed with Trump, however. Over at National Review, Rich Lowry generally had kind things to say about everybody but Trump, writing, “The last month has been Trump making the rest of the field look small; tonight was the opposite.”
While the general consensus seems to be that there were multiple winners coming out of last night’s main event, and there are split opinions on how some of them did, the consensus is equally clear regarding the early event: businesswoman Carly Fiorina dominated and was the clear champion. From Byron York, writing in the Washington Examiner:
About an hour into the primetime debate of the top 10 candidates in the Republican presidential race, the conservative actor Nick Searcy tweeted, "I'm afraid @CarlyFiorina is winning the second debate too."
He was on to something. Fiorina, the former Hewlett-Packard CEO, shone earlier in the evening, when seven GOP candidates who didn't make the cut for the primetime session gathered for the night's first faceoff. For about an hour after that debate, the big story was Fiorina winning what was sometimes called the undercard session….
It was hard to declare a clear winner of the primetime debate. Combine the two sessions into one, however, and Fiorina emerged as the likely winner of the entire evening.
Others were equally effusive regarding Fiorina. CNN’s headline coming out of the early event was “Carly Fiorina Shines in first GOP debate” while Slate reports “Carly Fiorina Won the Preliminary Debate. It Wasn’t Even Close.”
The main debate looks to have done little to shake things up in the race. Carson perhaps dimmed a little, Kasich and Christie may have boosted their stature a bit, but it would be hard to declare a clear, unequivocal winner or loser. Fiorina’s stellar performance earlier in the evening may just have the biggest impact going forward on the 2016 Republican nomination contest.