While Cruz and Rubio owned the night, several other candidates did little but sow doubts about their future viability. However, Trump and Carson are in a category of their own.
Kasich: Ohio Governor John Kasich started out forcefully, criticizing other candidates’ tax plans for relying on dubious assumptions, hammering Trump’s position on immigration, and attacking Carson’s tax plan. That attack was one of his first strategic mistakes. Regardless of his positions, Republicans would be wise to tread carefully around Dr. Carson. There are two reasons for this, and they are intertwined. The first is that he is currently the most popular politician in the Republican race, with a 68% favorable rating among Republican voters. Secondly, the soft-spoken neurosurgeon has been loth to attack fellow Republicans or even strike back, as he has refused to engage with Donald Trump’s attacks. The result was that Kasich looked hectoring and curmudgeonly, something that grew worse through the night. Furthermore, Kasich also got into a back-and-forth with Donald Trump, which has ended poorly for everyone who has tried (see Bush, Paul, Perry, Walker). Trump is not the most skilled debater, but he has two advantages: he brings M1 Abrams tanks where other candidates bring stilettos, and he has shown an uncanny ability to pinpoint his opponents’ weaknesses and use them to destabilize challengers. By trying to engage with Trump , Kasich came off looking petty as he and Trump argued over his tenure at Lehman Brothers.
Huckabee: Former Arkansas Governor Mike Huckabee did not have his best night. While his remarks were interwoven with his trademark folksy charm, he sometimes seemed to struggle with putting together coherent sentences on policy. He also made a significant gaffe in asserting that Social Security’s future viability is not about “math,” a dubious assertion about a fiscal issue. Huckabee did little to revive a campaign struggling to gain traction.
Paul: Senator Rand Paul was much like his campaign: there, but no one was really paying attention. For good reason, Paul came off as whiny while he frequently called for more time, despite his dismal polling numbers. What is worse is he made nothing of the time he had, instead reciting platitudes apparently ripped from his stump speech. Paul gave off the appearance that he has tuned out of the race, and with bleak fundraising numbers and weak infrastructure, perhaps he is just accepting reality for what it is.
Bush: Former Florida governor Jeb Bush almost warrants a category of his own: disaster. He had an awful night, particularly in the context of what he needed. After cutting campaign staff, slashing salaries, and underperforming in fundraising, especially amongst the grassroots, Bush needed a big night to regain momentum. He did not get it. Early on, he tried to attack Rubio on his absence from the Senate due to his campaigning; it backfired badly. It seems that Bush he had lost; he was subdued for the rest of the night, and besides mentioning that his fantasy football team was doing very well, had no memorable moments to compensate for the Rubio debacle. Bush is just not a strong political performer, and whatever one might think of showmanship, it is something that is necessary to run a modern campaign. Bush is, by all accounts, thoughtful and polite as well as a self-professed “introvert,” and his reluctance to attack his friend Rubio came through in their exchange. It was also clear by his response that Rubio empathized with Bush and that he took little joy in striking back. At the same time it was also made evident to all that Rubio is simply a much better politician. As both are Floridians, have similar supporters, and occupy the same ideological niche, this is thoroughly problematic for Bush as Rubio now threatens to eclipse him. Make no mistake: Bush is badly damaged.
Nevertheless, to paraphrase Mark Twain: “Reports of Bush’s death have been greatly exaggerated.” In the coming days, the media will inevitably report on Bush’s coming demise. Readers should keep their heads cool and consider three things. The first is that Bush has a Super PAC with over $100 million in the bank run by the capable Mike Murphy. Once it is finished with Bush’s rivals, they may no longer look so appealing. The second thing readers ought to consider is that both President George H. W. Bush and President George W. Bush struggled during their candidacies, with the then-sitting Vice President George H. W. losing Iowa to Bob Dole and George W. losing New Hampshire to John McCain. Yet, both won the Republican primary and eventually the presidency. They did so by employing their superior resources and engaging in merciless counterpunching, guided by savvy strategists such as Lee Atwater and Karl Rove. This is why Bush’s Super PAC is so critical. Third, Bush can fall back on the most well-established, wealthiest, oldest, and largest network in world politics. He has a support network like no one else and many donors undoubtedly have residual loyalty to both George H. W. and George W. This aspect of Bush’s candidacy is not to be underestimated, as it gives him unparalleled access to some of the wealthiest people and savviest policymakers in America today. So, Bush is down, but not out by any means.
Who the heck knows
Trump: I actually thought that within the context of his past performances, Donald Trump had an ‘ok’ night. Granted, his bar is so exceedingly low that for any other candidate it would have been deemed a failure, even if they cleared it with a significant margin. Nevertheless, Trump is usually judged by a different standard by primary voters. In clearing his low bar, Trump outperformed expectations. He was much more restrained, he had at least a vague grasp of policy which is a significant improvement from the past, and he did not say anything that would alienate his faithful base. However, given Cruz’s blockbuster performance, it is possible that some of his supporters move toward Cruz anyway. That said, this was a passable performance and despite his various disasters on the campaign trail, until recently, Trump has only grown stronger. Consequently I will not make any definite predictions as to his future support levels.
Carson: Ben Carson’s performance was consistent with the previous two debates in that he did not seem to have a good grasp of policy, though, like Trump, he has improved slightly in that area. He also maintained his soft-spoken and calm speaking-style, which has yielded huge dividends over past debates. Despite turning in what is conventionally termed “weak performances”, Carson has surged since the August Fox News debate, both in Iowa and nationally. I saw nothing this evening suggesting that Carson’s supporters would abandon him as his style was not radically different and perhaps even improved. For this reason, I do not believe that Carson will lose a significant amount of support.
CNBC: While Jeb Bush had a bad night, he had nothing on the host. The moderators and the questions in this debate were some of the worst that I have ever seen, in any debate in any country. The first embarrassment came immediately as the network was unable to start on time, speaking to sloppy planning and poor logistics. It only grew worse from that inauspicious start.
A second and debilitating problem was that the moderators failed to do their defined duty: moderate. They quickly lost control over the debate as candidates squabbled between themselves and with the moderators. One might conclude that this was the candidates’ fault. However, the moderators brought it upon themselves by the sub-par quality of their questions. The questions were generally petty, and at times factually dubious and hostile. Frequently, they tried to pit candidates against each other, undoubtedly to goose ratings. Moreover, the moderator John Harwood was mistaken when he challenged Rubio on his tax plan, which is surprising given that Harwood had corrected himself on the same issue two weeks prior.
Cruz aptly captured the tone in his attack on the moderators when he summarized their questions:
“This is not a cage match. You look at the questions — Donald Trump, are you a comic book villain? Ben Carson, can you do math? John Kasich, will you insult two people over here? Marco Rubio, why don’t you resign? Jeb Bush, why have your numbers fallen? How about talking about the substantive issues?”
The crowd roared at Cruz’s well-founded charge. The moderators made themselves and their network look foolish and inept. Their vapid questions and shallow grasp of the issues showed exactly why a financial network should not moderate a presidential debate. This bodes poorly for the Fox Business debate in November.
By William Montgomery, Associate Editor