Scorecard: September 16, 2015 CNN Republican Debate
Donald Trump sucked most of the media attention away from his opponents during the “Summer of Trump.”
With his poll numbers holding steady as the campaign careens into autumn, most of his opponents were increasingly desperate to steal some of the spotlight away from him tonight—or at least make enough of a dent to sustain their candidacies.
Who shined in tonight’s pivotal second primary debate? Whose oxygen-deprived candidacies took a step closer to going on permanent life support?
My scorecard is below. As always, I did my best to score this on debate points as a nonpartisan observer. These ratings are obviously subjective, so your (respectful) disagreements are welcome in the comments section.
MARCO RUBIO (1st Place, Grade: A)
I’ve always thought Marco Rubio had a Kennedyesque quality that he never quite lived up to. Tonight, he did. Senator Rubio dominated the second half of the debate with substantive and credible responses that showed off his knowledge of world and domestic affairs. When engaged with Donald Trump in a one-on-one skirmish, Rubio stood his ground and won the exchange. A story about his grandfather (“He became a conservative even though he got his news in Spanish”) scored an important point with his opponents, mostly Trump, about reaching and attracting voters in their native language.
CARLY FIORINA (2nd Place, Grade: A)
Ms. Fiorina won the first half of the debate, and would have been my winner had this debate ended after two hours (she was simply less of a factor in the final hour). She exhibited an impressive combination of knowledge and passion, and gave substantive answers when some of her opponents (Trump and Carson) didn’t. Her exchange with Donald Trump about her looks (Trump recently mocked her face) maintained the high ground—and when Trump tried to suck up by complimenting her beauty, she refused to even look at him, creating a brutal moment for Trump. She had several good moments, including a breathtaking line about burying a child due to drug addiction.
CHRIS CHRISTIE (3rd Place, Grade: B+)
Governor Christie had a great moment during his opening statement when he asked CNN to take the camera off of him and turn it to the audience, about whom this debate was really about. Christie brought humor and warmth (and some of the edge you’d expect from him), and stood out in a crowded field when he needed a boost most.
JOHN KASICH (4th Place, Grade: B)
Like Christie, Governor Kasich tried to spend his time focusing on viewers at home rather than his opponents. When Donald Trump and Carly Fiorina debated their respective business backgrounds, Kasich reminded them that, “I think it’s important that we get to the issues. They don’t want all of this fighting.” Kasich had a strong performance in the first debate too, and his New Hampshire poll numbers grew as a result. It will be interesting to see if that trend continues.
MIKE HUCKABEE (5th Place, Grade: B-)
Governor Huckabee knows his constituency and how to reach them. Although he offered strong answers on Iran and religious liberty, he was absent during the first half of the debate when viewership was likely highest.
RAND PAUL (6th Place, Grade: B-)
Senator Paul had several good moments, such as when he discussed the importance of diplomacy with Russia, China, and Iran. But he comes off less as a presidential candidate than as a think tank subject-matter expert, and fails to translate his ideas into the type of optimistic rhetoric voters typically reward.
TED CRUZ (7th Place, Grade: C+)
Senator Cruz has all of the mechanics of public speaking down. But he too often comes across as overly rehearsed and inauthentic, looking like a junior high student overacting in his first school play.
JEB BUSH (8th Place, Grade: C)
Like he has been through so much of this campaign, Governor Bush was “meh” tonight. When he and Trump skirmished, Bush backed down and looked weak. When he demanded that Trump apologize to his wife for insulting her heritage, he sounded more like he had prepared to deliver those lines than that he actually felt them (it had echoes of the Michael Dukakis “raped and murdered” debate response). The “wimp” label stuck to Bush’s father, and he’s at risk of being tagged with the same pejorative—something Trump has picked up on by labeling him “low energy.” And out of all of the women he could have said he wanted on the $10 bill, he chose Margaret Thatcher? He does know he’s running for president of the United States, not Prime Minister, right?
BEN CARSON (9th Place, Grade: C)
Carson spoke so little during the first half of the debate that search parties were probably beckoned to find him. He certainly didn’t embarrass himself, but he didn’t do much to stand out and get noticed. Perhaps that’s his strategy—to be left standing if Trump implodes.
DONALD TRUMP (10th Place, Grade: C-)
Predicting Donald Trump’s demise is a fool’s errand. But I believe this is the night when his Teflon shield was penetrated and his bubble will begin to burst. Two things worked badly for Trump. First, his obvious lack of knowledge in so many critical foreign policy areas—particularly in contrast to his more knowledgeable opponents—was laid bare. Second, his bullying routine, which worked so well for several months, didn’t work for him tonight. Once a bully is exposed, it’s difficult for them to assert the same power—and Rubio, Fiorina, and others showed that it’s possible to stand up to him and win. After losing one back-and-forth with Marco Rubio, The Donald was actually silent for more than half an hour. The news networks will continue to milk Trump for ratings for a while (his comments connecting vaccines to autism should give them new fodder). But I suspect the real race began tonight—and that we’re going to see Trump’s slide begin.
SCOTT WALKER (11h Place, Grade: C-)
It’s not that Governor Walker was bad tonight. He was just a non-factor, and a few pre-scripted lines, such as, “We don’t need an apprentice in the White House; we have one in there now” fell flat. Walker, whose poll numbers have dropped to Pataki-like levels, needed a game changing night. He didn’t have it.
THREE HOURS (12h Place, Grade: F)
CNN went long tonight, turning this into a 3 hour 15 minute debate. They proved that there’s such a thing as too much of a good thing.
What do you think I got right? Which ratings do you disagree with? Add your thoughts in the comments section below.