Donald Trump delivered a performance at the first debate between the leading candidates for the Republican presidential nomination that ought to kill his barely two-month-old campaign. The real estate mogul and former reality television star was boorish and defensive when he was challenged on his past behavior, and when asked to explain his policy positions he was vague to the point of absurdity.
Of course, vindictive behavior, intemperate outbursts and total lack of specificity on policy matters has pretty much been the story of Trump’s entire campaign so far, and he’s leading the Republican field by a wide margin. So it’s not really clear what his showing in Cleveland last night will do to his standing in the polls.
Trump, who arrived in Cleveland on a private airliner emblazoned with his name, entered the debate not only as the clear leader in the GOP field, but as the biggest wildcard. The debate moderators, Fox News hosts Bret Baier, Megyn Kelly and Chris Wallace, essentially admitted that he was the main story of the debate at the very opening.
They asked the candidates if they would agree, if they did not win the GOP nomination, to support the party’s nominee and pledge not to run as a third party candidate. Trump was the only person on the stage who has been suggested as a possible third party candidate, and the real estate mogul was the only one who refused to make the pledge.
The crowd reaction was telling. The initial outburst of cheering and applause was slowly drowned out by a growing chorus of boos and catcalls. In the end, that might wind up being the story of the Trump campaign compressed into the space of about eight seconds.
Trump, of course, wasn’t the only person on the stage. Next to him were the two men closest to him in the polls, former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush and Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker. Bush deftly parried most of the questions directed at him, pushing back on his support for the Common Core education standards and defending his record in Florida on both economic and social efforts without many of the verbal breakdowns that have plagued his relatively young campaign.
Walker struggled a little more than Bush did, largely dodging a question about poor job growth in Wisconsin under his governorship and obviously dodging an effort to get him to give specifics about how he would develop new U.S. allies in the Middle East.
Florida Sen. Marco Rubio was mostly smooth and polished in his answers, hitting his talking points on the tax code, regulatory reform and other topics. He mostly avoided controversy, refusing two requests to criticize Bush, and one to directly address controversial statements made by Trump.
New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, one of the candidates most in danger of not getting invited onto the main stage because of his lagging poll numbers, delivered a strong performance in general, and came away on top in a testy exchange with Sen. Rand Paul over government surveillance of U.S. citizens.
Paul went after Christie for his support of government surveillance, saying “I want to collect more records from terrorists and less from innocent Americans.”
“That’s a completely ridiculous answer,” Christie retorted, before telling Paul that actually prosecuting terrorists in court, which Christie stressed that he did as U.S. Attorney for New Jersey, was not the same as “sitting in a subcommittee blowing hot air.”
Paul was eventually reduced to reminding Christie that as governor he had once hugged President Obama. Christie went for the jugular with the emotionally manipulative but still effective rejoinder, “The hugs I remember are the hugs I gave to the people who lost relatives on 9/11.”
If Christie was one of the night’s winners, Ohio Gov. John Kasich may have been one of the disappointments. On his home turf in Ohio, Kasich started the debate well, delivering a powerful defense of his decision, unpopular among Republicans, to accept the Medicaid expansion that went along with Obamacare.
However, as the night went on, his answer became more rambling and less disciplined. His closing statement was practically a recitation of his resume.
Texas Sen. Ted Cruz delivered a workmanlike performance. A talented speaker, he worked hard to balance his reputation as a divisive malcontent in Congress with the suggestion that he is the Senate’s last honest man.
“If you’re looking for someone to get in bed with the lobbyists and special interests I’m not your guy,” he said. “I will always tell the truth and do what I said I would.”
Former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee, who has been down this road before as a candidate in 2008, was slick. He peppered his remarks with memorable lines, blasting Planned Parenthood by saying they “Rip up [fetal] body parts and sell them like they’re parts to a Buick” and tagging Obama’s strategy toward Iran and opponents of the nuclear deal his administration negotiated with the label “trust and vilify.”
One of the surprises of the night was Dr. Ben Carson. The former pediatric neurosurgeon can seem stiff and forced in interviews, but in many cases appeared sharp and clever Thursday night, delivering a number of applause lines and, while avoiding any real policy specifics, also avoiding any major blunders.