Three Winners, Three Losers from GOP Debate

Iowa GOP/Fox News Debate, August 11, 2011 (photo credit: IowaPolitics.com via Flickr, CC BY-SA 2.0)
Iowa GOP/Fox News Debate, August 11, 2011 (photo credit: IowaPolitics.com via Flickr, CC BY-SA 2.0)

Last night was one of the most memorable presidential debates in recent memory. There were three clear winners and three clear losers.

WINNERS:

1.) Carly Fiorina

Carly wasn’t even in the prime time debate, but her impressive performance in the 5:00 P.M. debate earned her frequent praise during the prime time debate, including from Megyn Kelly, who opened the debate by telling the 10 male candidates, “It’s a good thing Carly Fiorina isn’t here. She unleashed a can earlier tonight.”

Carly clearly won the “Happy Hour” debate, and given the positive coverage Fox News lavished on her throughout the night, she should receive a nice bump in the polls.

2.) Ted Cruz

Ted Cruz performed very well, although it was nothing out of the ordinary for him. Cruz will likely benefit from the inevitable downfall of Donald Trump. Trump supporters are looking for a fighter who will take on the Washington establishment, and Cruz seems to be the closest thing to fit that bill in the field. If Trump’s numbers dip, Cruz’s numbers will assuredly go up. He’s positioning himself quite nicely.

3.) Mike Huckabee

Huckabee gave a very impressive performance and delivered a clever closing that seemed to be taking aim at Donald Trump… before shocking everyone.

“It seems like this election has been a whole lot on a person who has been very high in the polls, who doesn’t have a clue about how to govern, a person who has been filled with scandals and could not lead… And of course, I’m talking about Hillary Clinton.”

The crowd loved that play on words, and it was very memorable. Huckabee should see an increase in support after last night.

LOSERS:

1.) Rand Paul

I actually think Rand had a perfect approach to this debate. He went after Trump when he refused to pledge to support the eventual nominee and scored a few early points. He tangled with Chris Christie and had a couple nice one-liners. He was aggressive and made an effort to get noticed.

But for whatever reason, it didn’t feel like Rand Paul performed very well last night. It actually felt like he lost ground. Donald Trump had a memorable throwaway line after Paul criticized Trump’s previous support for single-payer health care: “I don’t think you heard me. You’re having a hard time tonight.”

That line may have defined Rand Paul’s debate performance in the minds of those watching, even if it wasn’t necessarily fair or accurate.

2.) Scott Walker

Walker just didn’t stand out. He didn’t flop, he never really failed, but he constantly gave C+ responses that got lost in the shuffle. Walker will need a stronger performance in the next debate, or he’s going to start losing ground. This says less about Walker and more about the impressive GOP field.

3.) Donald Trump

He was hilarious. He had everyone’s attention. By social media metrics, he won the debate. But he lost as soon as he refused to pledge to support the Republican nominee. He lost when he made a fat joke about Rosie O’Donnell. He lost when he gave no policy specifics and showed pretty clearly that he’s all style and no substance.

While he may keep his front runner status after this debate, I imagine his negatives increased and solidified among Republican voters. Fox News did a focus group with Frank Luntz after the debate, and that was the overall conclusion: Trump’s schtick may work for a segment of the party, but it really irks the rest of it.

As Mary Powers wrote earlier today, Trump is going to struggle in a big way with women because of some of the ridiculous things he has said in the past. There’s just no defending what he has said, and yet last night, instead of apologizing for his nasty comments in the past, he doubled down. He essentially called Rosie O’Donnell fat and ugly — again — in a national, primetime debate. And the crowd roared. Yikes.

It’s August. Right now we’re all amused by this. But eventually, GOP voters are going to sober up and realize we can do better than Donald Trump.

Jon Schweppe is Deputy Director of Communications for American Principles in Action.