Second Republican Debate. Carson and Trump losers. Fiorina and Rubio rise.
CNN reports that last night’s “debate” set a network all-time record for viewers. At the actual and figurative center of the platform was Donald Trump, flanked by Ben Carson and Jeb Bush, so “featured”as a reflection of their polling numbers. Donald, as usual, got the most attention–good and bad. I am tempted to say that through his performance tonight, he should be very close to peaking out and shall soon see his numbers start dropping. But I’ve misjudged Trump’s popularity with a certain segment of the population before, and so am cautious before pronouncing him history. Yet any way that I look at last night’s performance, I saw him on the defensive, blustering foolishly. He may have gotten away with gratuitously insulting other women, who weren’t present to respond to his bombastic insults, but not last night. He apparently suffered no immediate polling punishment when, earlier, in an interview he said of Carly Fiorina: “Look at that face. Would anyone vote for that? Can you imagine that as the face of our next president?” I’m sure he thought he’d neutralized what little flak he was receiving from Republicans by saying later on that he meant her persona, not her appearance. Wrong! When Fiorina was asked for her reaction to his earlier insult, she threw Trump’s own words (about clearly hearing what Jeb Bush had said) back at him: You know it’s interesting to me. I think women all over this country heard very clearly what Mr. Trump said.” Trump reddened as the audience applauded her roundly. His clearly patronizing reply that, “I think she’s got a beautiful face and I think she’s a beautiful woman,” fell flatter than a pancake. I don’t know how many feminists there are among Republican ranks, but somehow this exchange seemed to remind people of Trump’s other personal insults, both directed at his fellow Republican hopefuls and to Mexicans and women, in general. I waited in vain for someone to articulate the unspoken question that was clearly hanging over the debate, whether Americans want such an awkwardly insulting bombast representing their country as its head. The issue of temperament and finger-on-the-button was alluded to, however. I saw no high points in Trump’s performance, and the image he’s projected thus far as a person strong enough to deal with economic problems at home, and Islamic jihadism abroad–with the background of 9-11 still suggesting that it could reach our own shores–was called into question. I suspect the true believers won’t see Trump’s performance as I did. Others, likely will. And the effect will show, even more pronouncedly when the field narrows, and the other hopefuls’ supporters go elsewhere.
On Trump’s right was the other rapidly-rising-in-the-polls outsider, Dr. Ben Carson. Trump gave him every opportunity to advance his cause, but he muffed his chance. Frankly, he looked out of his element in this debate. I’d have to say that his popularity will suffer from the mediocre presentation he made. In fairness to him, and probably to his benefit from what I did see of him, Dr. Carson didn’t get the attention of the questioners that Trump did. Some will applaud his low-key appearance and expect a continued climb in the polls. I will be very surprised if that lasts, if it occurs at all. I see others taking poll shares from Dr. Ben, and sooner rather than later.
The other “featured” politician, standing to the left of Trump was Jeb Bush. Pundits will note that he did exhibit a somewhat more lively demeanor, in response to Trump’s continuing dismissal of him as a “low-energy” person. He still is saddled with his famous, or infamous, depending on your perspective, family name. And he did nothing to separate himself from brother “W.” He implied that his advisers had to come from 41 and 43, as the last two Republican administrations. And, he argued, his brother kept us safe. I thought someone would mention that 9-11 occurred on his watch. But they didn’t, and the audience applauded his claim. The fact that “W’s” invasion of Iraq helped lead to our current mess in that region was alluded to. I saw Bush’s performance as hesitatingly steady. Given the negative impressions I had of Carson and Trump’s showings, I guess that’s a net plus. Yawn!
Walker, the early poll leader in Iowa, tried to come across as strong, to stem the bleeding of his campaign. I doubt that he accomplished his goal. Rand Paul has been a Libertarian from day one and that places his foreign policy isolationism out of the mainstream of Republican thought. John Kasich again quietly presented himself as the “moderate” in the crowd. In that, and in his political campaign organization, he is perceived behind Jeb Bush. I’d have to say that all three are destined to become footnotes in this race.
Mike Huckabee spoke well, as a fundamentalist preacher might. Huckabee sounds like a one-trick pony. He has successfully preempted the spot Rick Santorum held last year as the champion of the religious right. He probably won’t go any further than Santorum did last year–and possibly not even that far.
Chris Christie had a good debate. His moment of disgust with Trump and Fiorina haranguing over their supposedly great business histories showed forcefulness and was good theater. He’s gone from an early leader in the race for the Republican nomination to a marginal hopeful. He might possibly pick up a few points from Carson and Trump’s lead, but this wasn’t the showing that his failing campaign needed. He should still be around at the next cut and that still makes him in the running for the moderate vote should Bush’s campaign fall apart.
Marco Rubio seemed polished and well-spoken. He is positioning himself as to-the-right of Jeb Bush, but still a moderate. Speaking in this year’s Republican terms, that is. He clearly was trying to demonstrate knowledge about some of the complicated foreign policy questions that Carson and Trump seemed naifs. I believe he probably accomplished his goals for last night’s debate. Fox seems to like him. He may move up in the polls.
Ted Cruz, who is one of the most right-leaning candidates in the field, has tried to position himself as the heir apparent to Trump’s hodge-podge of supporters, if/when the latter’s candidacy implodes, as many expect. I didn’t find his performance in the second debate very notable. I think he may have muffed his chance, though it still remains to be seen where the Trump supporters will go, should his campaign start to fall apart. Cruz was about the only candidate not to criticize Trump after the first debate. I’m not sure where Trump’s weaker supporters will migrate. I don’t see Cruz as the automatic beneficiary.
Carly Fiorina’s peak moment in the debate has already been noted. Surely she came across as strong, if not particularly simpatico. Fiorina attacked Trump for his four bankruptcies–and made her point in fine form. She figures to go up in the polls, at least temporarily. But Trump was right that she was fired from Hewlett Packard. And following that, she was soundly defeated in a race for Barbara Boxer’s Senate seat from California. She may be the flavor-of-the-week, but I’m not sure about how she can outrun her history over the long haul.
I don’t see any of the four candidates who were in the earlier debate moving up to the main event, though Senator Graham is thought to have won. I’d say he has too much of a hill to climb in an already too crowded field. He has to first show that he can at least win his home state–and he trails Donald Trump significantly there according to recent polls.