Post Republican debate analysis.
Pending actual post-debate polls, my gut analysis of the debate is that each of the candidates did fine relative to the desired image they hoped to project; none stood out and most supporters will feel okay about their candidate’s performance. Nobody likely made a big move up or down because of his or her debate. The problem for the candidates is that the pie still totals only 100 percent. It’s difficult to see where there is any room for candidates to rise if its not from the two front-runners. I’m not seeing any other paths for candidates not named Carson or Trump. CNBC, if anyone, was the big loser, but not because of tough, unfair questions, save for the first one posed Trump about his campaign style that used an insulting characterization rather than many of the real criticisms that they could have used. More on this in a minute.
Frankly, Dr. Carson seemed like he had a weak debate last time, and he did to me again tonight. Fiorina, in the second debate, appeared the clear winner–in terms of movement from where she was going into the debate. Yet, her post-debate jump in the polls proved short-lived. Carson’s weakness, in that second debate, was forgotten within a few weeks as his poll numbers in Iowa began to rise, followed by a similar phenomenon in the national polls. The question that comes to mind is whether the debate’s importance has been overrated, or whether Fiorina’s post-debate surge and Carson’s subsequent rise were mainly due to Trump’s decline. Tonight the rest of the field all performed as their supporters would have hoped. Still, substantive movement upward, other than a minor shuffling of the third through ten spots, must come, if it does, at the expense of Carson or Trump–or both. It’s a real possibility, though likely limited to a few percentage points slippage. Now on to my candidate by candidate initial impressions.
Kasich had to appear relevant. I thought he did. He positioned himself, alongside Bush, and possibly Christie, as a mainstream Republican conservative–not liberal, but not extreme either, and not prone to pie-in-the-sky tax cut promises. Christie had his moment, forcefully criticizing the silliness, in a time-limited debate, of asking about fantasy football regulation. That actually wasn’t a totally insignificant question, but it was for this debate. Huckabee’s challenge was to not appear as the one-dimension Christian values preacher that he did in the last debate. Huckabee was successful in accomplishing this goal. He also showed some light humor in his comment about wearing a Trump tie. That didn’t hurt him. Paul preempted the field as the most intransigent opponent of the debt ceiling compromise. To what payoff, I’m not sure.
Cruz still appears like he’s trying to position himself to pick up Tea Party and evangelical Christian voters should Trump and/or Carson suffer some support erosion. He already has a base from the very conservative voting bloc. Cruz should maintain that role off his performance in the debate. Bush looked bad in attacking Rubio’s absence from the Senate, according to all of the television pundits. He’s not the first of the candidates to go on the attack, but it was stark against the backdrop of what was turning into a Republican love-fest. Considering that Bush and Rubio are vying for some of the same voters in Florida, and only one will survive, I gave him more credit than the pundits for his attack. It was, for Bush, a forceful moment and may have helped him with the “low-energy” or “wimpiness” image that Donald Trump’s incessant attacks on him helped create. Bush continues to position himself as the mainstream candidate, hoping for that to payoff over the long haul. For the most part Bush sounded reasoned, and–considering that a ten candidates debate forum doesn’t play to his strengths–remains a viable candidate, if he can hold on to his donor’s pledges–no mean challenge for him with the media criticism he is receiving. As for Rubio, he took a few body blows in Bush’s attack. But he also looked smooth and, perhaps more important, a candidate for the younger Republicans. His jab at Clinton’s Benghazi Committee testimony claiming that it showed her to be a liar played well with the partisan audience. The danger for him is that it might backfire in the general election polls. He is well positioned. Fiorina beamed a wide smile as she answered the question about what her most glaring weakness was by noting that people criticized her for not smiling in the second debate. That was the first and last smile I recall from her all night. I thought that Carly Fiorina deftly deflected questions about her firing at Hewlett Packard, but it was a parrying move, and the issue won’t simply disappear over time. It dogged her, and in the end killed her, in her losing California race against Senator Barbara Boxer. Fiorina did hit a high point in suggesting both that she was Hillary’s worst nightmare, and, at the same time, suggesting that the audience would love to see that debate.
Donald Trump had to fight his own inner-demons and avoid the kind of personal attacks that marked his first debate, which helped him gain the early lead in the polls–and likely is part of the explanation for his polls decline. Outside of a few nasty early moments, most especially his attack on Kasich for his role with Lehman Brothers, I thought that, relatively speaking, Trump limited his insults. The criticism, if it can be called that, is that in his debate performance, Trump basically just repeated his on-the-campaign-stump lines. Long on his particular style, short on substance. Carson simply looked weak and not commanding. He did avoid falling into the trap of seeming exclusively an evangelical Christian candidate. I wouldn’t be surprised to see some minor shift away from the Carson and Trump filter down across the rest of the field.
CNBC’s moderators appeared unprepared for the big stage. As in all of the earlier debates they asked the candidates questions that they should have been prepared for, about things that looked poorly to non-supporters. Nearly all of those, the RNC’s objections notwithstanding, were legitimate questions (save for the first one posed Trump, as noted earlier). But when challenged about the veracity of their charges, most of which the CNBC moderators should and could have substantiated, they quite simply were unprepared for the challenges, and were seen as stumbling and fumbling. Reputation-wise, CNBC was the biggest loser tonight.