The Fox News-Facebook Republican presidential primary debates on Aug. 7 created an excitement for political animals reminiscent of the recent Mayweather-Pacquiao prizefight. Debate watching parties, complete with pizza, popcorn and debate bingo games, were a flurry across Arkansas and America as the 17 Republican presidential candidates squared off in the two separate debates.
An estimated 24 million viewers tuned into the debate, making it the highest-rated presidential debate in television history, according to Nielsen data. And, we were all waiting to see how aggressive the candidates would be and who might draw Donald Trump’s blood first.
The questions posed by the moderators, a team of Fox News anchors, were pointed, difficult and on the mark. They often intentionally provoked conflicts between candidates, and it was the moderators who drew Trump’s blood first.
The big news was Trump’s opening admission that if he is not the GOP nominee, he may not support the Republican candidate and would consider running as an independent. Trump did not disappoint showing off his willingness to call American politicians “stupid” and expressing his open distain for the media and the moderators.
His showmanship, however, may be his demise, as at many points he seemed out of place and shallow. The suspicion has always been that Trump is not a real Republican and may not be beyond serving as a stalking horse for the Democrats as his potential third party bid would, in all likelihood, ensure a Hillary Clinton victory.
Trump’s opening statement drew boos, and his trademark jabs at his rivals on the stage did not seem to land as all of the polished members in the field seemed to fair well.
Former Arkansas Governor Mike Huckabee did a masterful job in his tone, style and sense of humor. Other contenders among the top 10 candidates included in the second debate also scored significant points and may have helped their positions in the polls enhancing their chances of receiving the nomination.
Texas Sen. Ted Cruz and Florida Sen. Marco Rubio delivered solid performances. Rubio showed command of policy, and Cruz showed heart and poise.
The most personal and heated exchange came between Kentucky Sen. Rand Paul and New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, as they brutalized each other over national security. Whether or not either of them helped himself, however, was unclear as Christie came across angry and Rand Paul seemed just quirky in the exchange. Both neurosurgeon Ben Carson and Ohio Gov. John Kasich were heartfelt and thoughtful in their comments.
Former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush came out of the debate with a neutral score, which for him can count as a victory as he let Trump implode at points and at other points stepped back to let others in the field take on Trump’s hardest punches. Bush did not let Trump draw him out or off of his game too much. Bush succeeded in showing he is presidential, pragmatic and focused on uniting a potentially deeply divided party.
With 17 candidates in the primary, the Republican Party will soon need to decide on how important the electability factor is verses giving voice to legitimate anger at the grassroots level.
Perhaps the biggest surprise of the night was the performance of California businesswoman Carly Fiorina. Per the rules of the debate she was pushed to the first debate because of her standing in the polls, but her performance clearly made the A list.
Substantive issues were raised about foreign policy and economic policy. On these policy matters, all contenders, except for Trump, showed themselves to be expert and thoughtful, particularly Fiorina. Her statement that this presidential race is a contest between secular progressive liberalism and conservative values was spot on.
Huckabee repeated this point, saying that a liberalism that sees America as fundamentally flawed — seemingly wanting to dismantle the nation, discard the principals of the constitution and start over — has angered many Americans.
The contest is between two fundamentally different views of America and civil society, but the GOP will need to decide how to narrow this field to an electable pragmatic ticket. I think such a combination exists among the 17 candidates.
Stylistically Bush, not wanting to look too much like a Bush, and former Texas Governor Rick Perry, trying to appear smarter, seemed both to be in competing for the “worst eyewear” award. South Carolina Sen. Lindsey Graham’s intense saber rattling struck most as odd and a bit overboard given the challenges we face in the domestic economy.
My biggest disappointment was not winning the debate bingo game because Trump never used the word “YUUUUUUGE.”