The second Republican presidential debate took the contest
to a higher and more detailed level. The man who dominated
the first debate, Donald Trump, appeared defensive, overly
mannered and lacking in knowledge of details of the issues
The only newcomer to the debate, Carly Fiorina, quickly and
consistently demonstrated why she had to be included in the
“prime time” event. She had many of the best lines of the
evening, including a dispositive squelch of Mr. Trump’s earlier
attack on her. It seems that her performance was so strong at
the Reagan Library that virtually all observers have declared
her the biggest winner.
But there were other winners, too. Marco Rubio, the most
youthful contestant, had done well in the first debate, but had
not seemed to connect with the audience. This time he did,
making his arguments more personal and passionate.
Chris Christie, whose poll numbers have declined over the past
year, made a significant comeback employing his considerable
natural communication skills, self-effacement and his command
of the issues. Like Mrs. Fiorina, he effectively criticized Mrs.
Clinton, and avoided petty questions and tactics.
John Kasich reinforced his strong showing in the first debate
with reminders of his political experience, which is probably
greater than anyone else on the stage, and his accomplishments
while serving in the Congress and as governor of Ohio. He’s not
as smooth a Christie, Rubio or Ted Cruz, but his sincerity shined
through the debate.
Jeb Bush, the earlier frontrunner, had not done well in the first
debate, allowing himself to be overshadowed by Mr. Trump, as
well as seemingly hesitant in putting forward his arguments.
This time, his self-confidence had grown, and standing next to
Mr. Trump, he did not back off their inevitable confrontation. Mr.
Bush is not an easy communicator, and while he projected sincerity
and intelligence, his presentation still needs work.
Ted Cruz spoke well, as he always does, but he more than anyone
(except perhaps for Mike Huckabee) spoke to a self-limiting
audience, expressing controversial views likely to be well-received
only by a notable conservative faction within his party. He shares
much of that faction with Mr. Trump who leads Mr. Cruz at this time
by a wide margin.
Ben Carson is one of the most likable figures on the debate stage,
something which is reinforced by his calm and reasoned manner.
His astute comments on military and foreign policy were the high
point of his presentation at the second debate, and he is doing very
well in the polls, but he has yet perhaps to persuade that he is made
of presidential timber.
Scott Walker, who effectively made himself a place in the first tier
of candidates earlier in the year in Iowa, continues to fall short of
standing out in this field. He has an impressive record as governor
of Wisconsin, and has shown considerable political grit in winning
three statewide elections there in five years against considerable
odds, but he has not yet in the two debates made a true case for
himself to be the GOP nominee.
Mike Huckabee, the only holdover from the 2012 GOP race, played
the role of team cheerleader at the second debate, praising the
overall level of the Republican field of candidates. Always an
effective speaker, he nevertheless continues to pinpoint his appeal
to a specific GOP faction.
Rand Paul is perhaps the maverick in this contest, advocating
foreign policy views not shared by his rivals. He, however,
continues to fail to make his case effectively and to grow his
Finally, the hitherto frontrunner Donald Trump. What seemed fresh
and appealing prior to the first debate, and in Cleveland, now seems
to be becoming stale schtick. His propensity to attack his rivals
personally is also not wearing well. He could have been the biggest
loser at debate two, but he will not go away anytime soon. With
Mrs. Fiorina rising notably; Mr. Rubio, Mr. Christie, and Mr. Kasich
also rising (probably less dramatically); and Mr. Cruz gaining in the
polls at Mr. Trump’s expense, the previous domination in the polls
Mr. Trump and Mr. Carson has probably peaked for now.
On the other hand, the dissatisfaction of so many in the conservative
and Republican grass roots remains. Debate number two marks a
turning point in the contest, I think, because for the first time,
the experienced political figures (most notably, Christie, Rubio and
Kasich) in the field began to reach out to those voters, and not
defaulting them to Trump and Carson.
While Mrs. Fiorina might not have the resources to actually win the
GOP nomination. she has clearly laid a legitimate claim to her
party’s vice presidential place on the ticket. She will likely be the
biggest draw in the next GOP debate.
The Democrats will finally have their first debate on October 13.
It is not clear if Joe Biden will be there. If he is not, the generally
lackluster Democratic field is not likely to be in any way as
impressive as its opponent’s field. As Mike Huckabee implied
at the Reagan Library, it is the conservative party, by virtue of its
political diversity and talent, which is winning the early
under-the-radar stages of the 2016 presidential cycle. The huge
national audiences for the first two GOP televised debates are solid
evidence of this.
Copyright (c) 2016 by Barry Casselman. All rights reserved.