Some notes on the 1st Presidential debate of the 2016 campaign season:
Fox News moderators prepared for the debate by painting a target on Donald Trump's chest.
Donald Trump (Let me repeat that: "Donald Trump"?!?!?) emerged from this debate even stronger than he was going in. I stand by my prediction that he's a novelty candidate. But he keeps surprising me. I wake up every morning expecting his candidacy to have crashed and burned, but he's making everyone else look foolish with some remarkable instincts for the plainspoken, straightforward, take-me-or-leave-me-but-get-out-of-my-way style that is confounding one political professional after another. I'm still waiting for it to crash, but I think the entire world is seeing how he's been a business leader in the toughest business climate on earth for so many years.
(Side note: When I write that he's "showing everyone in the world", I mean that literally. Anytime lately that I've spoken with people from other nations and the topic of politics comes up, the first thing they mention is Donald Trump. People know him from TV and generally seem to think of him as a cartoonish, ridiculous caricature of everything American. Rich, pompous, loud, confident. But they're all amused that someone like that could be taken seriously by anyone. And nobody outside America seems to know who any of the other GOP candidates are.)
Rand Paul seemed caught flat-footed by Trump just like the entire political establishment. I don't think Paul lost any points, voters or credibility. I don't know that he gained any. But he did fine. He just tangled with a guy who's not giving any ground and isn't afraid to be rude. Paul came out of the exchange as good as anyone in the Paul camp could've hoped for.
Ted Cruz did a good job of directing his fire at the Republican establishment. He seems to be one of the few candidates who clearly sees that the GOP base is craving leadership instead of the usual inside-the-beltway business-as-usual crowd that Donald Trump is being fueled by. I don't think Cruz got any short term points out of this debate. But he didn't lose any. And, I believe, he set himself up for the long term as the logical option for Trump supporters once (if?) The Donald crashes. Cruz did okay.
Dr. Ben Carson was a surprise. I keep waiting for him to step in something major and to officially become that historical footnote that most novelty candidates become. But he's consistently well-spoken, intelligent, likable and has stayed out of major controversy. His previous comments on gays and 2nd Amendment issues may come back to cause him some difficulties the further into the race he gets, but I thought he did an outstanding job of being smart, humble and keeping focus on Hillary and Democrats. He also delivered the 2nd best line of the entire debate with his description of Hillary and her supporters. Outstanding job, overall.
Scott Walker did an excellent job of steering clear of the chaos and looking presidential. He was one of the big winners for the evening by addressing Obama and Hillary's disastrous foreign policy and taking on the GOP establishment. This was - very quietly - a good night for Scott Walker.
Jeb Bush appeared to be on the defensive all night. I'm not sure how much his being featured on the top headline on Drudge earlier in the day in the Politico article calling Trump names to GOP donors had anything to do with his behavior. But, to me, he seemed like a political candidate desperate to get people to like him. It wasn't a disastrous debate for him, but it confirmed to a lot of voters that he's the "insider" guy that all the party elite want to get the nomination and he's trying to find something to get the base to go along with him, too. Bush might eventually be the nominee, but it will only be for the same reason as Romney. He's got a huge war chest, the backing of the blue-blood establishment and he's probably a savvy enough politician to just stay in the race long enough to be the last guy left. But he's not exciting to anybody. And he didn't do anything but confirm what everyone thought.
I keep being surprised at what a great speaker Mike Huckabee is. I've said that I think his best chance to be President has passed. But he's got a decent base of support and he speaks well. He's clearly the conscience of the party, but I believe that his supporters have more viable candidates in Scott Walker and Ted Cruz. Huckabee did a fine job, but I would say he just held serve with pretty much what everyone thought they'd hear from him.
Marco Rubio & Chris Chrsitie both showed that they are the #2 and #3 establishment picks. They mostly stayed out of trouble. Christie did a nice job of getting fired up defending his dumpster fire of a state, but he didn't come off as unhinged. Rubio sounded like a plastic candidate defending his inexperience. Ultimately, I thought both candidates were defensive. Neither one gained anything from this debate except experience in a presidential debate.
John Kasich did a nice job, but he's no factor and didn't do anything to justify his inclusion on the stage in place of Rick Perry or Carly Fiorina. Which is not fair to Kasich, but Perry should've been in the top 10 and Fiorina's stock is rising fast. Especially after her performance in the "other guys" debate before the big show. And Kasich seemed to be trying to stake out a Chris Christie-like liberal-lite position. Maybe like he's sucking up to the establishment? Sucking up to the media?
Conclusion for the night?
1. Trump was unexpectedly dominant, if not particularly eloquent. He was especially surprising considering the brutal targeting by the moderators. He was clearly the big winner of this debate.
2. Dr. Carson scored points, came across as honest and appeared to be a genuine outsider to the process and maybe not in over his head as far as casual observers had believed. His stock rose considerably. We'll see if that translates into points in the polls and eventually at the ballot box.
3. Scott Walker was a big winner, too, by ignoring the chaos and staying focused on the concerns of the Republican base and looking presidential doing it. Scott Walker might now have the best long-term prospects for the GOP nomination.
1. Jeb Bush was defensive and didn't give anyone anything to be excited about.
2. John Kasich didn't give anyone a reason that he should be included in the conversation with all the other candidates on stage. He might get a bump from the media for his liberal tone, but I expect him to fade now.