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Eye On Candidates
September 17, 2015

Fiorina Emerges as Debate Star

The media are full of reviews of last night’s debates, declaring some candidates winners or losers or assessing whether they did what they needed. Much of the attention is focused on businesswoman Carly Fiorina, who seems by most accounts to be the evening’s winner, as this Bloomberg View article suggests:

Carly the Conqueror

 No candidate took the stage with a greater opportunity, or higher expectations, than Carly Fiorina. That she proceeded to steal the show was the insta-conventional wisdom—and, in this case, it’s difficult to argue the contrary. Former Obama communications maven Dan Pfeiffer has posited that the explosion of social media has turned debates into communal experiences in which big moments matter most of all. And Fiorina’s riposte to Trump’s “look at that face” insult in Rolling Stone was clearly the moment of the night: two sentences that were not only composed, concise, and potent, but that roused the crowd in the hall and online, and actually, amazingly, forced Trump into the closest thing (creepy and condescending though his response was) to an act of contrition we’ve seen from him yet. 

Fiorina was by no means perfect, and if she now rises in the polls, the oppo hits on her tenure at Hewlett-Packard and Lucent will come hard and fast. But her performance overall proved beyond a doubt that she deserves a place on the main stage, and is a growing force to be reckoned with.

Over at National Journal they were similarly impressed with Fiorina:

The night’s un­dis­puted cham­pi­on. Fior­ina was a force, show­ing both a clar­ity and pas­sion in her ar­gu­ments that her rivals struggled to match. Her best mo­ment came about halfway through the de­bate, when she fin­ished a rous­ing take­down of the Ir­a­ni­an nuc­le­ar-arms deal and pivoted right to a vig­or­ous case for de­fund­ing Planned Par­ent­hood—two is­sues that sit at the heart of the cur­rent GOP primary cam­paign.

“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 in re­gard to the Planned Par­ent­hood is­sue, earn­ing some of the night’s loudest ap­plause.

Fior­ina is very clearly good at this. She won last month’s ju­ni­or varsity de­bate, and when she went toe-to-toe with her op­pon­ents Wed­nes­day, she usu­ally came out on top. She even landed the clean­est jab yet at Don­ald Trump, when she fielded a ques­tion about Trump’s dis­missive com­ments on her ap­pear­ance.

“I think wo­men all over this coun­try heard very clearly what Mr. Trump said,” she said.

The former Hew­lett-Pack­ard ex­ec­ut­ive earned a small surge in sup­port after the first de­bate in Au­gust. After an­oth­er good per­form­ance in front of a lar­ger audi­ence, she might be in line for a much big­ger bump after the second.  

The Politico Caucus insiders also saw Fiorina as the hands-down winner and concluded that Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker and businessman Donald Trump were the biggest losers of the evening:

Republicans were divided by geography over who was the biggest loser of the evening. Trump had the worst night, according to 40 percent of New Hampshire Republicans. Walker came in second with 20 percent. But in Iowa, Republicans thought Walker had the worst night — 42 percent said the Wisconsin governor flopped.

"Walker who? Was he even in the debate?" jabbed one Iowa Republican….

New Hampshire Republicans, who haven't seen Walker as much in their state, said Trump had a terrible night.

"Completely blew it," a New Hampshire Republican said. "His most sophomoric performance yet. The format allowed longer, more in depth answers and the opportunity to expose knowledge and personality ... all of which plays against a Trump campaign."

Added another, "Worst night of campaign. After the fireworks early, Trump demonstrated his total lack of familiarity with issues, policy, nuance. The would be Emperor tonight was severely under dressed."

Chris Cillizza at The Washington Post concurred regarding Fiorina and Walker (Trump didn’t merit a mention in his review of winners and losers), and he joined most other pundits in assessing Florida Sen. Marco Rubio as a big winner of the evening as well:

He was handicapped somewhat by a lack of speaking time but he did extremely well -- for the second straight debate -- with the time he was given. Rubio was extremely knowledgeable -- almost to the point of being too rehearsed -- on foreign policy; for most of the debate he seemed like the person on the stage who knew the most about virtually every topic being discussed. Rubio didn't get a huge bounce from his strong showing in the first debate. Will this time be different?

Cillizza’s assessment of former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush was bifurcated, as he thought Bush was terrific in the final hour of the debate and lackluster in the first two:

Jeb Bush, hours 1 and 2: Jeb came out flat. And, every time he tried to get Trump's goat, it quickly became clear that he just didn't have the heart for it. Jeb's answer about his last name -- the most obvious question there is -- seemed to catch him off-guard (again) and his response about how the last two Republican presidents were his dad and his brother was bad….

Jeb Bush, hour 3:Where was this Jeb during the first two hours (a.k.a. when people were watching)?  He was terrific on Iran, drew huge applause for defending his brother from Trump and had a great line about his mom still being angry at him for smoking pot in high school. He was great. But probably too late….

Other candidates being graded as winners, or at least recognized for solid performances in most analysis, include New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie and Sen. Ted Cruz. Here was National Review’s take on the two:

Christie turned in a strong performance. He left his mark talking about national security and showed some of the bluster that made him a contender in the first place.

Cruz tends to treat debates as opportunities to deliver mini-stump speeches, so debate moderator Jake Tapper repeatedly cut him off mid-answer, making him seem somehow ill-prepared for the format. That being said, the Texas senator didn’t do anything to hurt himself tonight and predictably stayed away from slinging mud at Donald Trump.

Retired neurosurgeon Ben Carson’s performance didn’t seem to impress too many observers, although it’s worth noting that the same was said following the first debate that led to the recent surge in support for Carson. Which was pretty much what National Review said:

Nobody will ever accuse Carson of being overly emotional. The retired pediatric neurosurgeon is known for his subdued, quiet mannerisms. That makes it hard for him to stick out on a stage with eleven people on it. But pundits panned his first debate performance, and his poll numbers skyrocketed in its wake anyway. So what do we know?

Kentucky Sen. Rand Paul didn’t seem to impress too many of those grading debate performances. Bloomberg Politics gave him a grade of C- while National Journal considered him to be one of the evening’s losers:

Paul re­minded Re­pub­lic­an voters of two things Wed­nes­day night: He and Trump don’t get along, and his for­eign policy views are badly out of step with the con­ser­vat­ive base. The de­bate was only minutes old when Trump turned to the sen­at­or from Ken­tucky and cri­ti­cized his phys­ic­al ap­pear­ance, mim­ick­ing the way an older broth­er would tease a young­er sib­ling.  

Paul fought back, but the real dam­age came later, when he talked about the Ir­a­ni­an nuc­le­ar deal. No can­did­ate seemed more de­term­ined to back the agree­ment, an un­pop­u­lar view in a party that over­whelm­ingly op­poses it….  

Of all the 11 par­ti­cipants, Paul felt like the most ex­pend­able.

Former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee struggled to gain attention in most reviewers’ eyes, with Cillizza simply writing in The Washington Post “Where. Was. He.” Ohio Gov. John Kasich seemed to be less of a factor in this debate than last month’s, according to CNN:

There wasn't much daylight between the Ohio governor's first and second debate performances.

But Kasich's second performance lacked the umpf that defined his first appearance on the debate stage when he barely squeaked into the top-tier and impressed political observers just weeks after launching his candidacy.

Four candidates in the early “undercard” debate tried to replicate Fiorina’s feat of emerging from the bottom of the pack with a stellar performance, and most observers seem to feel South Carolina Sen. Lindsey Graham did the best. Here is Time’s writeup of his performance:

It was vintage Lindsey Graham: pragmatic and level-headed, refusing to pander, wisecracking his way to the next political fight.

The undercard debate of also-ran candidates Wednesday gave the three-term Senator from South Carolina a chance to shine before a national audience. In his slow, Southern drawl, punctuated with self-deprecating asides, the 60-year-old lawmaker took a measured approach that stood out in contrast to the bomb-hurling rivals.

“I wasn’t the best law student. By the end of this debate, it would be the most time I’ve ever spent in any library,” Graham said to chuckles at the debate hosted by CNN at the Ronald Reagan presidential library.

It will take several days at least to see if Graham gets anything like the attention given to Fiorina after her first debate performance, or if the pundits’ assessments of the candidates match up with the actual impact of the campaign moving forward. John Heilemann at Bloomberg Politics, who wrote the “Carly the Conqueror” article at the top, had this observation:

One of the lessons of the first debate is to avoid jumping to conclusions in the minutes immediately following the melee. Nearly all of us in the political analysis racket knocked Ben Carson’s performance in Cleveland, but the verdict delivered by Republican primary voters was vastly different.

So it will likely be a few weeks before anyone has a good handle on who really won and who really lost the debate, or more realistically who helped themselves or hurt themselves the most. Until then, these reviews should at least provide some explanation for what will unfold over the next several weeks of the GOP nomination contest.