The Winners and the losers in GOP debate

BBC | By

Donald Trump

trumpAs expected, the unexpected frontrunner, standing centre stage at the Ronald Reagan presidential library, was attacked from all sides. But that’s exactly how the pugnacious non-politician likes it.

Best moment: He insists he’s not “braggadocious” (see his would-be Secret Service codename below), but even Donald Trump must have been pleased with the series of early one-liners he used to put down his rivals. After Rand Paul accused him of junior high insults: “I never attacked him on his look – and believe me there’s plenty of subject matter”. And when Jeb Bush sparred with him over money from donors: “More energy tonight – I like that”.



Biggest flop: But The Donald had no answer to Carly Fiorina. He was uncharacteristically muted when she challenged him on his grasp of foreign policy and blushed when she delivered a Trump-esque putdown over his comments on her appearance. His awkward response – “she has a beautiful face and is a beautiful woman” – did not help.

Secret Service codename: Humble

Final verdict: Bruised but certainly not beaten. And the usual political rules don’t seem to apply so we’ll have to wait until the next polls come out.

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Carly Fiorina

FiorinaPromoted to the prime-time showdown after her much-heralded performance during last month’s undercard debate, the former head of computing giant Hewlett-Packard didn’t disappoint.

She showed a firm command of the issues, which she effectively mixed with personal touches. While citing her daughter, who died of drug addiction, during a question on marijuana legalisation could have seemed forced, her answer came across as sincere. And her response on government funding of Planned Parenthood – “This is about the character of our nation. If we will not stand up and force President Obama to veto this bill, shame on us!” – was an emotional peak.

Best moment: It was a question she surely prepared for, but it was expertly handled nonetheless. When she was asked about Donald Trump’s attempted explanations for his comment that he couldn’t envision “that face” of hers as president, she tartly replied: “I think women all over this country heard very clearly what Mr Trump said.” The audience roared.

Biggest flop: As expected Ms Fioriana had to defend her record as head of HP, a post from which she was forced to resign in 2005 after laying off 30,000 workers. Her explanation – that it was in the middle of a massive tech sector collapse – was serviceable, but it led to a more challenging give-and-take on business acumen with Trump.

Secret Service codename: Secretariat (the Triple Crown-winning racehorse)

Final verdict: She proved she belonged on the big stage. And could she prove to be Trump’s kryptonite?

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Jeb Bush

BushIt was a higher-energy Jeb Bush that took the stage in Wednesday’s debate, once even giving Mr Trump an emphatic low-five after a joke about his Secret Service codename.

The structural challenges the candidate faces, however, were unchanged, and he still stumbles when trying to address them. There’s the famous last name, of course, but beyond that is the awkwardness he shows whenever he tries to pivot during an answer to his record as Florida governor. Those days were more than a decade ago, which is an eternity in politics.

Best moment: Mr Bush closed out the debate with talk of his plan to grow the economy at 4%. While many critics say it’s a pie-in-the-sky promise, there wasn’t much discussion of the economy during the debate, despite Republican voters saying it’s their top concern. If people were still paying attention after nearly three hours of debate, they may have liked what they heard.

Biggest flop: Jeb Bush began an answer about federal funding for Planned Parenthood with a reference to “Title 10 of the HHS funding bill”. He said more after that, but chances are his audience had stopped paying attention.

Secret Service codename: Eveready (after the battery)

Final verdict: Higher energy isn’t likely to lead to better results – at least for now.

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Ben Carson

CarsonThe retired pediatric neurosurgeon gave another low-key debate performance on Wednesday night. Given that his last bit of prime-time somnambulance kicked off his recent rise in the polls, more of the same may be a winning ticket for the man. His line about immigration and how US farmers are hiring immigrants to do the jobs Americans don’t want to do would normally be radioactive for a Republican candidate, but it’ll probably just slide off Mr Carson’s back.

Best moment: It was Mr Carson’s closing statement in the first debate that won him the highest praise, and his final statement was again one of his high points. “I see a lot of people trying to divide us,” he said. “Real leadership is what I would hopefully bring to America.”

Biggest flop: The highly decorated doctor could have torn into Mr Trump for advancing the view that there might be a link between vaccinations and autism despite all evidence to the contrary. Instead he was his normally restrained self, calling the New Yorker an “OK doctor”, before adding that there is “extremely well documented proof that there’s no autism link to vaccinations”.

Secret Service codename: One Nation (also the title of his autobiography)

Final verdict: Another dose of slow and steady may be just what the doctor ordered.

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Marco Rubio

RubioThe Florida senator offered a crisp, polished performance from start to finish without getting bogged down in back-and-forth sniping with any of the other candidates, including the always irascible Trump. Although his sponsorship of immigration reform in the Senate is an area of weakness for him with much of the Republican electorate, he adeptly turned questions on the topic into talk of his compelling personal story as the child of poor Cuban exiles.

Best moment: Mr Rubio had the opportunity to answer a foreign policy question directly after Mr Trump, and the contrast couldn’t have been sharper. Where the billionaire spoke in vague platitudes, Mr Rubio was specific and precise, ranging from North Korea to Russia to China to the Mid-East.

Biggest flop: Mr Rubio has missed more votes in Congress than any other other senator, which Mr Trump hit him on at one point. It’s a testament to Mr Rubio’s rhetorical skill that he was able to perform a bit of political jujitsu and turn it into a condemnation of a legislative body that’s “out of touch with the American people”. Will the American people buy it? In this anti-establishment political environment, they just might.

Secret Service codename: Gator (he went to the University of Florida)

Final verdict: If Mr Rubio finally breaks out of the Republican pack, he can credit two solid debate performances.

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Scott Walker

WalkerIt wasn’t a bad debate performance by the Wisconsin governor, but given his precipitous decline in the polls he needed much, much more. He had limited chances to answer questions, and much of the ground he did cover was on foreign policy, which isn’t his strong suit.

Best moment: Early in the debate, Mr Walker took his shot at Mr Trump: “We don’t need an apprentice in the White House – we have one right now.” Yes, it was obviously a well rehearsed line – and it mischaracterised Mr Trump’s role on his reality show – but at least it was a memorable quip in an otherwise forgettable performance.

Biggest flop: When Mr Walker was asked about his presidential qualifications, he cited dealing with the 100,000 activists who demonstrated by the Wisconsin state capitol during a showdown over government union dues in 2011. It may remind people a little too much of his most prominent gaffe, when he said earlier this year that his handling of those protesters helped prepare him to confront Islamic militants.

Secret Service codename: Harley (he loves to ride the motorcycles)

Final verdict: Mr Walker’s campaign sinking in quicksand and tonight’s debate wasn’t the lifeline he needs.

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Chris Christie

ChristieIt may be a case of what-might-have-been for Mr Christie. His performance on Wednesday was virtuoso, but it might have come one debate too late for the New Jersey governor. He’s sunk so low in the polls that even a win here may not be enough to jump-start his campaign. Time will tell.

Best moment: Mr Trump and Ms Fiorina were engaged in a nasty back-and-forth about their business acumen when Mr Christie jumped in with the kill shot: “For the 55-year-old construction worker out in that audience tonight, who doesn’t have a job, who can’t fund his child’s education, I’ve got to tell you the truth, they could care less about your careers, they care about theirs,” he said. “Let’s start talking about that on this stage and stop playing games.”

Biggest flop: In a campaign that’s been dominated by non-politicians like Mr Trump and Mr Carson, the New Jersey governor tried to play up his anti-establishment credentials. “I am a Republican in New Jersey,” he said. “I wake up every morning as an outsider.” It was a nice try, but I don’t think anyone is going to buy that.

Secret Service codename: True Heart (a Kirsten Dunst adventure movie and this Care Bear both share that name)

Final Verdict: Chris Christie got his groove back.

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Rand Paul

PaulIt was another disappearing act for the Kentucky senator. He was provided limited time to answer questions, and he didn’t do much with the opportunities he did have. When the talk turned to the Iran deal, Mr Paul was one of the few who didn’t amp up the anti-Iran rhetoric. He said it was “absurd” to promise to cut up the deal without seeing if Iran was complying. While it was an honest answer, it’s not going to win over any support within the Republican electorate.

Best moment: The libertarian Paul obviously feels strongly about marijuana legalisation, and it showed. During his answer on the topic, he called out Mr Bush’s admitted drug use as an example of how drug laws are predominantly used to incarcerate the poor, while the wealthy avoid trouble. He then pivoted to a larger discussion of federal overreach in enforcing criminal laws.

Biggest flop: Mr Paul’s most memorable episode may have been when Mr Trump said he didn’t deserve to be on the stage and joked about his appearance. It was a moment where the Kentucky senator could have gone nuclear on the New Yorker – and maybe made some headlines – but he largely let it slide.

Secret Service codename: Justice Never Sleeps

Final verdict: The fact that the debate didn’t touch on government surveillance and the NSA shows just how far off his game Mr Paul has been forced to move.

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Ted Cruz

CruzIt was a remarkably quiet debate for the grass-roots conservative firebrand, in part because he was unwilling to take part in the Trump-bashing that dominated the opening rounds. While he’s amped up his anti-establishment rhetoric in recent speeches, he also only took one swipe at the Republican leadership in Congress – on federal Planned Parenthood funding – during the three-hour event.

Best moment: The former Supreme Court clerk and Texas solicitor general knows the legal world well, so he was able to name drop effectively when asked whom he would have appointed to the high court instead of John Roberts, the chief justice who has become anathema in conservative circles due to his decisions upholding healthcare reform.

Biggest flop: Mr Cruz stumbled when pressed by moderator Jake Tapper on why he didn’t support Barack Obama’s proposed air strikes against Syria’s Bashar al-Assad back in 2013. His response – that the president “couldn’t answer the question of what he would do if chemical weapons ended up in hands of radical Islamic terrorists” – seemed a bit of a dodge.

Secret Service codename: Cohiba (a type of Cuban cigar, and Fidel Castro’s favourite)

Final verdict: The master debater didn’t have much of a chance to flash his skills.

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Mike Huckabee

HuckabeeIt’s not his first Republican nomination rodeo, but the former Arkansas governor is struggling to keep up in this horserace.

Best moment: No one can out Doomsday this ex-Southern Baptist pastor and his warnings about the threat the Iran deal poses to both Israel and “the future of Western civilisation” will go down well with Evangelicals. Citing the case of Kentucky clerk Kim Davis, the former Fox News host also warned of “judicial tyranny” and the “criminalisation of Christianity”, the sort of rhetoric that is red meat to parts of the Republican base.

Biggest flop: Mr Huckabee’s opportunities to flop were few and far between – there was a half-hour gap between his introductory statement and his first answer to a question. But saying he’d put his wife’s face on the 10-dollar bill – rather than famous women from American history – will have seemed odd to all but the most folksy folks out there.

Secret Service Codename: Duck Hunter (keen shooter and fan of Duck Dynasty TV show)

Final verdict: Hard to see how he converts any party activists to his cause with this performance.

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John Kasich

KashichIn a crowded field of conservatives appealing to the right-wing base of the party, the Ohio governor has tried to carve out a niche as a pragmatist who can get things done – even if that means compromise and negotiation on occasion. And he’s hoping that his more recent track record in government will get him more traction if Jeb Bush fails to convince in that role.

Best moment: Although Mr Kasich also opposes the Iran deal and government funding of Planned Parenthood, he distanced himself from the combative approach many of his opponents are advocating. On Iran he said he would work with allies, rather than rip up the deal, but re-impose sanctions and take military action if necessary. And he warned Republicans that calls to shut down the government in protest at money given to the family planning group could backfire. It’s something he knows all about, since he was a Newt Gingrich lieutenant in Congress during the shutdown fights of the 1990s.

Biggest flop: Given a chance to slam Hillary Clinton – an open goal in front of this audience – he said he’d prefer to use the time to introduce himself, and his achievements, to a wider audience. An honest appraisal of his low name recognition perhaps, but outlining a political career dating back to the 1970s isn’t smart when so many GOP activists seem to hate career politicians.

Secret Service codename: Unit 1 (his codename in Ohio)

Final verdict: Everything in moderation is usually sensible advice – but it may not apply in this Republican race.

Source: BBC