The Winners and Losers of the First GOP Presidential Debate

Thanks to Donald Trump, the first Republican presidential debate of the 2016 election was probably the most hyped primary debate in history. Many predicted that there was no way it could live up to expectations, but by 11 p.m. Thursday, most people had changed their minds. (Though, there were a few contrarians. Salon’s Simon Maloy said that, aside from Trump, it was a “dully, substance free affair,” and “every second of it was a punishing slog that corroded the soul like so much battery acid.) Opinions on the candidates were more varied, though everyone seems to agree that Fox News did an impressive job of challenging them (particularly Donald Trump). Here’s how each candidate fared, according to the pundits.


Most memorable moments: Pretty much all of them. The moderators opened by asking if there was anyone onstage who was not willing to pledge not to run as an independent. Trump’s hand went up, drawing boos from the audience. He made the dubious claim that the GOP is only talking about immigration because of him. He said every top businessman declares bankruptcy once in a while. He informed Rand Paul, “You’re having a hard time tonight.” He delivered an unintentionally insightfulcritique of the corruption in American politics. And when Megyn Kelly confronted Trump about the disgusting things he’s said about women, he cracked “only Rosie O’Donnell.”

How he did:
“Give this to Donald Trump — he knows politics well enough to know not to punch down. He acted the front-runner in his own bizarre, rambling way. That isn’t to say that he lacked his signature insulting bombast, but as promised he didn’t toss any bombs at his fellow debaters, though he took plenty of shots at people not on the stage (including a bizarre and risky threat against Megyn Kelly). And more often than not he exhibited his characteristic lack of knowledge — or interest in — policy details.” —Robert Schlesinger, U.S. News & World Report

“It was Donald Trump, though, who might have had the weakest performance. No, it may not be the end of his surge. But he consistently faced pointed questions, didn’t always have satisfactory answers, endured a fairly hostile crowd and probably won’t receive as much media attention coming out of the debate as he did in the weeks before it. If you take the view that he’s heavily dependent on media coverage, that’s an issue. Whatever coverage he does get may be fairly negative — probably focusing on his unwillingness to guarantee support for the Republican nominee.” —Nate Cohn, New York Times

“This was the Donald’s debate. He dominated the discussion, he was the focus of the moderators, social media traffic spiked every time he opened his mouth. Other than Rand Paul (who is apparently still running for President), all of his fellow candidates went out of their way to avoid stoking his ire … Trump may have hurt himself or helped himself, no one really knows because he defies all the traditional rules of politics (he probably hurt himself a lot). But his effect on the field is clear. This is Donald Trump’s party and all the other candidates just seem glad to be invited.” —Dan Pfeiffer, CNN

Most memorable moments: Megyn Kelly gave Bush another opportunity to clarify his thoughts on his “brother’s war” in Iraq. “Knowing what we know now, with faulty intelligence, and not having security be the first priority when — when we invaded, it was a mistake,” he said. Eventually, Bush pivoted to blaming President Obama for the birth of ISIS, but for a question Bush knew he would be asked, his answer was surprisingly inelegant.

How he did:
“Bush made no major blunders, but he looked out of his element at times. It was clear that his free-wheeling style and aversion to the choreography of politics was preventing him from making a bigger mark. He stumbled (again) over a question about his brother’s decision to invade Iraq, clumsily pivoting to Iran at the end. He wasn’t as forceful on his key issue — immigration reform — as he could have been, especially with Donald Trump standing next to him on stage.” —Josh Kraushaar, National Journal

“I thought Jeb Bush, who was threatening to turn into a gaffe machine, was forceful and clear. He did what others on the stage shied away from doing, criticizing Trump’s divisiveness. Trump did not hit him back, a kind of victory for Bush. The former Florida governor showed real passion in sticking by his support for Common Core education standards.” —E.J. Dionne Jr., Washington Post

“Mr. Bush achieved adequacy. He received respectful and supportive applause whenever he said anything, but didn’t say anything especially well. He continues to be the front-runner as odd duck.” —Peggy Noonan,The Wall Street Journal

“With high expectations, Jeb Bush fell short in this forum. Jeb is not comfortable as a TV personality. He held his own, but several other candidates did better. He needed to demonstrate he, in some way, is a superior candidate from not only than the others but his brother George. He didn’t do that.” —Christopher Ruddy, Newsmax

Most memorable moments: Everyone seemed to enjoy this zinger: “It’s sad to think right now, but probably the Russian and Chinese government know more about Hillary Clinton’s e-mail server than do the members of the United States Congress.”

How he did:
“Mr. Walker won by not losing. In a lot of ways, the moderators’ tough, specific questions played to Mr. Walker’s weakness. He got no opportunities to make his pitch about fighting unions in Wisconsin. But he handled several tough questions — on abortion; on relations with Arab nations; what he would do after terminating the Iran deal; race; and his employment record — without appearing flustered or making a mistake. His answers were concise and sharp … Mr. Walker’s uneventful performance, however, still poses risks. For him, the danger is that it will provide an opening for a more dynamic conservative to eat away at his support on the right.” —Nate Cohn, New York Times

“Scott Walker seemed like he was easing into or out of a coma, and managed to sound dull even when dodging a question about whether his extreme anti-abortion views would mean he’d ‘let a mother die rather than have an abortion.'” —Simon Maloy, Salon

“Scott Walker was solid but not spectacular. He spoke with an almost casual style and his closing statement played up the characterization of him as ‘aggressively normal.’ He did not have many opportunities to drive his message of ‘big, bold reforms,’ so he used his closing statement to emphasize his record.” —Stephen F. Hayes, The Weekly Standard

Most memorable moments: Arguing that he has a better understanding of the modern American economy than the other candidates, he said, “If I’m our nominee, how is Hillary Clinton gonna lecture me about living paycheck to paycheck? I was raised paycheck to paycheck.” He also argued with Megyn Kelly about whether he supports allowing abortion in cases of rape and incest (Vox explains he’s sponsored legislation with the exceptions, but Rubio’s team said he’ll support laws that restrict abortion access with or without the exception).

How he did:
“Marco Rubio (#7) consistently gave strong and substantive answers that at times emphasized the compelling story of his family and at others demonstrated his depth of knowledge on the subject matter discussed …  If the debate had a winner, it was Rubio.” —Stephen F. Hayes, The Weekly Standard

“Mr. Rubio, the senator from Florida, has a good a case to be considered the debate’s top performer. A weaker Mr. Bush probably benefits Mr. Rubio as much as anyone, and if Mr. Bush raised questions about whether he would be a great general election candidate, then Mr. Rubio added yet more reason to believe he could be a good one … even if this is not the moment he breaks through, he surely advanced his case among the many electability-minded and conservative party elites with reservations about the abilities of both Mr. Bush and Mr. Walker.” —Nate Cohn, New YorkTimes

“Marco Rubio was fresh, crisp and poised. Hillary Clinton, he said, won’t be able to lecture him on living paycheck to paycheck because ‘I was raised paycheck to paycheck.’ He has successfully staked out the future as his theme — one that of course is underscored by his youth.” —Peggy Noonan,The Wall Street Journal

Most memorable moments: He argued for the rights of the fertilized egg, saying, “It’s time that we recognize the Supreme Court is not the supreme being, and we change the policy to be pro-life and protect children instead of rip up their body parts and sell them like they’re parts to a Buick.” He also wondered how providing transgender military personnel with gender-reassignment surgery makes the nation safer. “The military is not a social experiment,” he said. “The purpose of the military is [to] kill people and break things.”

How he did:
“Mike Huckabee, who also ran in 2008, didn’t say anything much of note. Delivering his closing statement, he seemed more like the proprietor of an auto shop than a man gunning for the White House. ‘I think America is in trouble, but it is not beyond repair,’ he said.” —John Cassidy, The New Yorker

“Mike Huckabee remains an incredible communicator. His support of Social Security and Medicare are probably the smartest thing any Republican can do. If Huckabee had a strong campaign organization he could be in top tier.” —Christopher Ruddy, Newsmax

Most memorable moments: When asked about calling Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell a liar recently, Cruz said, “If you’re looking for someone to go to Washington, to go along to get along, to get — to agree with the career politicians in both parties who get in bed with the lobbyists and special interests, then I ain’t your guy.”

How he did:
“Ted Cruz was fine. He didn’t dominate as he has on some stages, but he caused himself no trouble. He’ll get deadlier as the number of candidates winnows down.” —Peggy Noonan, The Wall Street Journal

“He got short shrift from the Fox questioners. They seemed to forget about him at times. Yet the folks in Frank Luntz’s focus group, airing their views on Fox after the debate, gave him high marks. That was surprising. Nothing he said was remarkable. But he made the case for a ‘consistent conservative’ as the GOP nominee, and indeed he fits that bill. I doubt if his presidential prospects improved.” —Fred Barnes, The Weekly Standard

Most memorable moments: Aside from his fight with Chris Christie, Paul was the first candidate to attack Trump. When he said he wouldn’t rule out running as an independent, Paul said, “This is what’s wrong. He buys and sells politicians of all stripes, he’s already … hedging his bet on the Clintons, okay? So if he doesn’t run as a Republican, maybe he supports Clinton, or maybe he runs as an independent.” Trump’s response: “Well, I’ve given [Paul] plenty of money.”

How he did:
“His campaign has been reeling and it won’t get any better on the basis of his debate performance. There were only a few glimpses of his libertarianism. More would have helped. He bragged about his 5-year budget without explaining how it gets to balanced. He was the night’s loser.” —Fred Barnes, The Weekly Standard

“Rand Paul seemed on the defensive, and did not impress. Though the country is tired of war, people are alarmed about ISIS, Iran, China and Russia. Paul’s semi-isolationist stance was an easier sell when our engagements in the Middle East were still building. His dustup with Christie came across as nasty on both sides, with Paul accusing the New Jersey governor of ‘blowing hot air.'” —Liz Peek, Fox News

“Paul … was full of life, but his irritability and thin-skinnedness were on display in a testy exchange with Chris Christie over the NSA (which Christie clearly got the better of); his eye-rolling became an instant GIF sensations on the interwebs. And even when Paul wasn’t visibly annoyed, he seemed screechy and off-key.” —John Heilemann, Bloomberg Politics

“The biggest surprise of the night came from Rand Paul, who showed up ready to fight. The usually laid-back libertarian came out fiery, getting into squabbles with Donald Trump and Christie (winning the latter exchange). If nothing else, Senator Paul reminded America that he’s still in this thing in a meaningful way.” —Buck Sexton, CNN

Most memorable moments: When called on halfway through the debate, he said, “Well, thank you, Megyn, I wasn’t sure if I would get to speak again.” (When the numbers were tallied, the only candidates who got significantly more airtime than Carson were Bush and Trump.)

How he did:
“It was clear that Ben Carson was Mr. Nice Guy. He is principled and decent. He didn’t stand out this time, but like Herman Cain, he may rise to the top as the GOP fight gets messy down the road.” —Christopher Ruddy,Newsmax

“Ben Carson had a few good quips, but wasn’t generally very persuasive, especially as an outsider candidate in comparison to Trump. But we saw that coming.” —Douglas E. Schoen, Fox News

“The Carson phenomenon has always been a difficult thing to parse. His biography is a big part of it, to be sure, and so his appeal as an outsider. But every time the good doctor opened his mouth, the energy level on stage palpably plummeted; his affect was less appealingly low-key than somnolent.” —John Heilemann, Bloomberg Politics

Most memorable moments: The most exciting non-Trump moment in the debate was definitely Paul’s spat with Christie over privacy and national security.

How he did:
“A great night for him. He won the biggest blowup of the debate, mopping the floor with Rand Paul on the subject of national security. Christie knows how to project his personality, explain things, and make an argument — and he did all three effectively. Christie was the best debater of the bunch. He gained, big time.” —Fred Barnes, The Weekly Standard

“Chris Christie has not loomed large in the post-debate analysis I have seen so far, but he made his presence felt which, given his low standing in the polls, was essential to his soldiering on.” —E.J. Dionne Jr.,Washington Post

“Governor Chris Christie had a chance to crawl out of the doghouse last night, but barely made it past the door. He got into a shouting match over Rand Paul’s opposition to NSA snooping, with Christie citing his post-September 11 experience as reason to encourage more, not less, intelligence gathering. The confrontation was vintage Christie but somehow it lacked authenticity. Maybe Trump has simply stolen his tough-talk persona.” —Liz Peek, Fox News

Most memorable moments: Kasich gave a passionate defense of his decision to accept federal funding to expand Medicaid in his state, saying it allowed Ohio to treat drug addicts and mentally ill people in prisons. He also said that while he believes in traditional marriage, he accepts gay people and recently went to a friend’s same-sex wedding. “God gives me unconditional love,” he said. “I’m going to give it to my family and my friends and the people around me.”

How he did:
“Ohio Gov. John Kasich, playing on his home turf in Cleveland, stood out as decidedly different from all his foes. He was ‘compassionate conservatism’ come back to life. A Republican who not only accepted the Medicaid expansion under Obamacare but actually fought for it, Kasich didn’t back away. Instead, he offered a passionate and spirited defense of the program and a description of the good it does. Praising Medicaid is something that’s just not done at GOP events … This may not play with significant parts of the GOP primary electorate, but on Thursday night, Kasich established himself as a unique and important voice.” —E.J. Dionne Jr., Washington Post

“Mr. Kasich also advanced his cause. He entered as a largely unknown candidate outside of Ohio, where he is governor. But he was backed by a supportive audience, he deftly handled tough questions, and he had a solid answer on a question about attending same-sex weddings. His answer might not resonate among many Republicans, but it will resonate in New Hampshire — the state where he needs to deny Mr. Bush a path to victory and vault to the top of the pack.” —Nate Cohn, New York Times

“Kasich isn’t going to win over many of the party’s conservative grassroots. But he’s not Jon Huntsman, either. Through the course of the debate, he made a compelling case that he’s as viable a contender for the establishment mantle as Bush, who seemed unusually tentative and rusty after not being on a debate stage for over a decade … Kasich sounded like a happy warrior on stage, a far cry from his irritable reputation. And he stayed mostly on message during his speaking time, an impressive feat for a politician who’s known to go off on distracting tangents.” —Josh Kraushaar, National Journal

Most memorable moments: Carly Fiorina was stuck in the 5 p.m. “happy hour” debate, but everyone agreed that she was the night’s breakout star. She launched several attacks at Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton, such as, “I didn’t get a phone call from Bill Clinton before I jumped in the race … maybe it’s because I hadn’t given money to the foundation or donated to his wife’s Senate race.”

How she did:
“The reliably on-point and interesting Carly Fiorina has been declared the overwhelming winner. That surprised me because I’ve seen her better, including this past weekend at the Koch donors seminars in California, where to some she was a revelation. This is a strong, gutsy woman. The evening was a reminder that the debates are important: Those not preoccupied with politics were seeing her for the first time. Next time she will belong in the top tier.” —Peggy Noonan, The Wall Street Journal

“As people like Perry (still not a good debater), South Carolina Sen. Lindsey Graham (why was he so sad???) and former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum (angry much?) struggled, Fiorina shined. She repeatedly hit on her knowledge of the world and foreign policy and, smartly for this Republican audience, went after Clinton on Benghazi. What made Fiorina stand out — more than what she said on any particular topic — was that she looked up to the moment. She was prepared and poised. She rarely glanced at notes. She spoke freely and easily. She had the ‘it’ factor.” —Chris Cillizza, Washington Post

How they did:
“Given the nearly impossible task of dealing with such a crowded stage, Kelly, Brett Baier, and Chris Wallace weren’t entirely successful. The pace of the debate was at times too frenetic and militated against anything that resembled a probing, thoughtful exploration of substance. But those failings were far outweighed by the quality of the questions: challenging and pointed without an ounce of gotcha, with Kelly in particular delivering a bravura performance.” —John Heilemann, Bloomberg Politics

“This wasn’t a debate, at least not like most of those I’ve seen. This was an inquisition. On Thursday night in Cleveland, the Fox News moderators did what only Fox News moderators could have done, because the representatives of any other network would have been accused of pro-Democratic partisanship. They took each of the 10 Republicans onstage to task. They held each of them to account. They made each address the most prominent blemishes on his record, the most profound apprehensions that voters feel about him, the greatest vulnerability that he has. It was riveting. It was admirable. It compels me to write a cluster of words I never imagined writing: hooray for Fox News.” —Frank Bruni, New York Times


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