Nicknamed the “Mistake by the Lake,” Cleveland was once famous for its toxic waste of a river known as the Cayuhoga, now under remediation but which caught fire 13 times between 1868 and 1969. Today, Cleveland’s better known as home of the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and for having an economic strategy based roughly on Lebron James. But last Thursday night (and again next July for the convention), all eyes were on the city for something that doesn’t shine very often in Cleveland: Republican Party politics. More specifically, it was the first and grandest of 11 debates to help determine the Republican nominee for President. And a guy named Trump.
Actually, I thought The Donald did fairly well during the debate in appealing to his base and disagree with the media narrative that he bombed. Afterward though, he continued his attacks on women, calling moderator Megyn Kelly a “bimbo” among other things. Previous comments haven’t affected his poll numbers, but we’ll see how fleet of foot his supporters are in the coming days.
Looking at times bewildered standing next to Trump, Jeb Bush is clearly a more cerebral version of his brother, yet he couldn’t seem to connect his brain to his mouth in a fluent manner. He may be rusty at high-stakes debating after a few years away from public office, but he performed similarly in a low-stakes forum in New Hampshire just three days prior, painfully tripping over his words to tell a joke about his father. Jeb wasn’t bad, but he didn’t perform like the nearly even-money favorite that sportsbooks peg him to be.
As expected, Scott Walker chose the same “don’t screw up” strategy as Bush, mostly succeeding by sticking to talking points and staying out of the fray. Arguably, Walker’s most interesting moments came each time Ben Carson spoke, showing the Wisconsin governor looking like a bobble-head nodding his support in the background. I almost expected him to start clapping for the guy.
The smart and deliberate-speaking Carson, a neurosurgeon, had several clever answers and should see a small bump in the polls given that more people thought he won the debate than had supported him beforehand. He has said that debating is “not brain surgery” but successfully campaigning to win a presidential election is tantamount to such. Personally, I’m still a bit confused by the doctor’s comments that his tax plan was derived from tithing.
Tithing is a familiar concept for Mike Huckabee, an ordained Southern Baptist minister. In 2008 he was lifted by strong debate performances more than any other candidate but struggled to break through in his first try this year. He did relatively well, but with a much deeper field of opponents and a previous loss on his résumé, he needed to do more than joke about his proposed consumption tax forcing pimps and prostitutes to pay taxes.
As the most ardent Tea Partier of the group, it’s probably a good thing Ted Cruz isn’t a Nascar driver, seeing as he only knows how to turn to the right. Fighting for that space with several candidates, many expected Cruz to rise to the top with his straight talk and champion debating skills. Instead, his whiny voice and pre-meditated pauses failed to impress many undecided voters. He didn’t lose, but he didn’t win either.
Boy wonder and eternal veep pick Marco Rubio answered questions about sagging poll numbers by delivering a very strong performance in Cleveland. At this point Rubio’s biggest problem is likely his home state of Florida, which hosts a crucial March primary and where fellow resident Jeb Bush has been consistently more popular.
Just to prove how independent he is, Rand Paul chooses to wear a male perm, which even has its own fledgling Twitter account. Paul is a bit like Trump in that he has a lower political ceiling than most and is not afraid to mix it up with other candidates or fling off-the-wall quotes. Unlike Trump, he actually did bomb during the debate.
The largest presence in the race, Chris Christie is unfortunately past his Obama-prime. That means when you’re the hot commodity, you run for President that cycle — not four years later after a bridge scandal. Christie actually performed very credibly yet didn’t generate much buzz from it.
Home court advantage went to John Kasich, current Governor of Ohio who usually does well in freewheeling situations and did again on Thursday. Unfortunately for Kasich, he could probably get elected in Santa Barbara but will struggle to win the primary as the most moderate of the lot.
The “Happy Hour Debate,” as Lindsey Graham termed it, saw the bottom seven candidates go head-to-head four hours before the main contenders in what turned out to be a snooze-fest.
Rick Perry started things off with a bumbling answer that made you wonder if we could be in for another “oops” moment, before performing rather well over the remaining hour. Unfortunately for Perry, simply adding a pair of glasses to his look is not going to change things — he still has one of the more improbable paths to the White House, and his campaign is already broke.
A far-right conservative, Rick Santorum talks about manufacturing jobs, something half of us aren’t old enough to remember as a major part of the U.S. economy. He also compares the recent Supreme Court ruling on gay marriage to the Dred Scott slavery case. That’s a doozie I’ll let you analyze on your own.
Bobby Jindal would have won if the competition were for the highest volume of canned catch phrases. Like Christie, he seems to be past his Obama-prime which is pretty amazing considering that he is the youngest candidate this cycle.
Former Hewlett-Packard–exec Carly Fiorina had the best and maybe only opportunity to break out from the JV debate, and she clearly won — now let’s see how she performs versus the varsity squad. Last known as California’s 2010 Republican candidate for U.S. Senate, Santa Barbara County voters seem to like Fiorina just fine as she won a majority of votes here despite a three-way primary against a well-known moderate and credible enough conservative.
Lindsey Graham knows he won’t win and is in the race to carry the John McCain mantle of hawkish foreign policy and immigration reform, using a loose and humorous style to garner media attention. After performing his trademark “Clinton-speak” translation services, Graham said that anyone who doesn’t understand that ground troops are needed in Iraq and Syria is not fit to be President.
Confusing viewers and even some reporters who weren’t sure which candidate they were looking at were the 16th- and 17th-placed candidates in the race, just ahead of former IRS Commissioner Mark Everson who tried to sue his way onto the debate stage without explaining why he thought putting the IRS in his ballot title was a good idea. George Pataki, the grandpa in the race at 70 and the most frequent invoker of 9/11 since Rudy Giuliani did himself no favors by saying the reason he didn’t run in 2012 was because he “wasn’t ready.” The sole pro-choice candidate in this year’s race, Pataki was 67 then and had already served his three terms as Governor of New York. I guess nine years out of office made him that much more ready than five.
Jim Gilmore is even more anonymous, having been out of office 11 years. Not to be outdone on the 9/11 front, Gilmore proudly stated that he was Governor of Virginia when the Pentagon was attacked — like that is somehow a qualification for Commander-in-Chief. Showing his lack of foreign policy prowess, he advocated for a Middle East NATO “to stop this ISIL thing.”
If ranking the debate performances best to worst, it would go something like this: Rubio, Kasich, Fiorina, Christie, Carson, Trump, Huckabee, Graham, Cruz, Walker, Santorum, Bush, Perry, Paul, Jindal, Pataki/Gilmore (tie). Only 342 days until many of them are together in Cleveland again, this time singing kumbaya for the one who managed to survive their ultimate King (or Queen) of the Mountain contest.