GOP Debate: A Lot of Hype But Little Change

The big winner of the way-too-early first debate of the presidential primary season wasn’t even on the stage for the prime-time event. Carly Fiorina won the “undercard” event earlier in the evening. She did so in convincing enough fashion that the next big question for political junkies will be whether she can make it into the main event in next month’s debate.


There’s no doubt that many people will be cheering her on, though it remains to be seen whether she can actually catch fire as a presidential candidate. Many have already begun thinking of the former tech executive as a vice presidential prospect.

The next big question for political junkies is whom she might replace. Ohio Gov. John Kasich may be the most vulnerable. That’s not entirely because of his debate performance. It has more to do with the timing fluke that got him into the debate in the first place. Just about every candidate has enjoyed a bounce in support when he entered the race. So, Kasich got in because he announced late enough to ride the bounce to prime time. When the bounce fades, his prime-time invitation might disappear with it.

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But the reality is that the debate did little or nothing to change the dynamics of the race. Donald Trump is still channeling a lot of anger and frustration, much of it directed toward the Republican establishment. One of the more amazing moments in any presidential debate came when he admitted giving money to lots of candidates — from both parties — because as a businessman he needed favors from them. That’s more truth than you typically hear from any candidate in any forum.

Jeb Bush looked smooth for the most part, which is both a plus and a minus. To some, he embodies competence, while others see him as just another privileged member of the political class. Nothing on the debate stage changed any of that. Along with Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker and Florida Sen. Marco Rubio, Bush remains one of the more likely nominees.

The event did have some interesting moments, most notably the shouting match between New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie and Kentucky Sen. Rand Paul. Paul, who has a much greater commitment to the Bill of Rights than Christie, had the better of the argument on the merits. He has been a consistent critic of the NSA spying that shreds the privacy of American citizens. But, in the heated exchange on stage, neither candidate looked very good.

Coming out of the first debate, then, we’re exactly where we were heading into it. The Republicans have a fairly deep field of potentially competent candidates, and it’s not clear who will emerge victorious. As time goes on, we will learn whether it will be possible for the Republican establishment and base to agree on a candidate. But that answer won’t come until after voters have actually taken part in caucuses and voted in primaries.

And, no matter who is nominated, the most important single factor in determining the outcome of 2016 will be President Barack Obama. If the election were held today, he would be a modest drag on the Democratic nominee. The question, though, is how he will be viewed in November 2016.

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