Donald Trump defended his comments calling Rosie O’Donnell a “disgusting pig,” and lashed out at “stupid” leaders and politicians. Meanwhile, Gov. Chris Christie and Senator Rand Paul clashed in a series of intense exchanges on privacy versus safety in dealing with domestic terror.
The first GOP presidential debate was a conflict worthy of its prime-time placement. The top-tier Republican candidates tested each other’s defenses, lashed out at the media, and fought for the right to take on Democratic frontrunner Hillary Clinton.
Some near the top of the pack played it safe, while others near the bottom put it all on the line. Some did what they needed to, while some fell short. Here are the grades each of the candidates earned on their performance.
Gov. Scott Walker
Final Grade: A-
The Wisconsin governor has consistently been in the top tier but has faced questions about whether he is truly ready to operate on the national stage and on foreign policy issues. Walker came out crisp, clear, and eloquent on every issue thrown his way throughout the debate. The midwestern governor reminded voters he is “aggressively normal” and rides a Harley Davidson in between battling the unions and successfully defunding Planned Parenthood.
Walker made a strong case for his electability based on his three hard-fought victories in four years in Wisconsin. Walker didn’t hit it out of the park Thursday night, but he did exactly what he needed to do.
Fmr Gov. Jeb Bush
Final Grade: B+
The darling of the establishment had one mission in the GOP’s first major televised debate: Escape unscathed. Bush largely accomplished that goal, save for an embarrassing slip-up in his closing statement where he asked voters to consider him “whenever the primary is.” I’m sure many Iowans didn’t appreciate Bush not knowing, or not seeming to care, when the first votes for a GOP nominee would actually be cast.
Bush also demonstrated a little woe-is-me mentality when asked about the drawbacks of the Bush name. “Perhaps the bar is higher for me,” he lamented. With over $100 million raised through the extensive national Bush donor network in the first half of 2015, it hardly seems serious to think that name is too much of a hinderance. Besides a few eyebrow-raising moments, however, Bush largely skirted the candidate-on-candidate interaction and emerged unscarred, with by far the best funded campaign to keep him at the top of the contest.
Final Grade: B-
Trump did essentially what he was expected to do, but he failed to keep the conversation completely focused on him and his remarks. He made a few outlandish comments, rehashed the bold rhetoric on issues like illegal immigration and trade, which have suited him well, and took digs at his opponents on stage. Trump, however, did not offer anything new to continue or expand his momentum. Unlike in the last several weeks in the GOP contest, Trump left the debate with plenty of conversation to be had about the other candidates. The sharp questions from Fox News moderators also brought up some serious baggage, which viewers were unlikely to know beforehand. Trump wasn’t fatally wounded in this debate, but this could mark the start of his long-expected decline.
Sen. Marco Rubio
Final Grade: C+
The Florida senator has possibly suffered the most during Donald Trump’s early ascendency before the debate. Rubio went from a top three contender to a position far back in the middle of the pack over the past months. Thursday night could have been his moment to break out and change the dynamic. But it wasn’t. Rubio performed well, answered questions with poise and sophistication, but he did not have a dazzling moment.
Sen. Ted Cruz
Final Grade: C-
The firebrand from Texas came off as very forgettable. Cruz delivered crisp lines on conservative values and freedom but did not offer a compelling reason for why he should be the choice of voters over the others on stage. Cruz may benefit from the debate nevertheless, depending on how serious the damage to Trump turns out to be. In a post-debate focus group session on Fox News, pollster Frank Luntz found at least several participants who went into the debate undecided but ended up supporting Cruz. For many, however, Cruz snoozed.
Sen. Rand Paul
Final Grade: C
Rand Paul came off on the worse end of the night’s most heated exchange. Likely to get the most media coverage of any clash, the exchange came with New Jersey Governor Chris Chris over the issue of NSA data collection of cell phone records. Paul and Christie sparred back and forth several times with quick and pointed lines. Christie argued that to suspend the NSA program would senselessly endanger American lives, while Paul argued the program was a violation of basic civil liberties. The exchange ended, however, with Senator Paul suggesting Governor Christie hug President Obama again. Christie responded that the hug he remembered was one with the families of 9-11 victims. The moment made Paul look badly flippant.
Fmr Gov. Mike Huckabee
Final Grade: A
Without question, Huckabee was a major winner of the night, perhaps the biggest winner. Huckabee drew thundering applause lines for calling President Obama’s foreign policy a plan of “trust, but vilify, to trust our enemies and vilify his opponents.” Huckabee lambasted recent action from the Pentagon to allow transgender soldiers to serve in active duty capacities, saying, “The military is not a social experiment.” For conservative voters looking for a Trump alternative after Thursday night, Huckabee shined bright.
Dr. Ben Carson
Final Grade: B+
Dr. Carson smartly turned his low-key demeanor and soft-spoken, thoughtful nature into endearing sound bites with humor. Carson poked fun at Congress and Washington, offering that he has the experience of removing half of a brain, but that many might think some in Washington had done the same. Carson also heavily focused on his faith-based approach to public policy. He offered a well-reasoned case for a flat tax by comparing it to tithes in the Bible. He also successfully avoided appearing sleepy and definitely remained intriguing for conservatives.
Gov. John Kasich
Final Grade: B-
Kasich deserves an A grade for the campaign strategy which earned him a place in the prime time debate over former Texas Governor Rick Perry. Many had criticized his late entry into the GOP contest only to see him earn just enough of a bump to make the first televised showdown. Once at the debate, however, Kasich wasn’t particularly memorable. He offered a tepid defense of his decision to expand Medicaid in his state under Obamacare, reminded voters he had been around for the balanced budget deal of 1997, and did little else. Overall a competent performance but not one to shake up his position.
Gov. Chris Christie
Final Grade: A
Along with former Arkansas Governor Mike Huckabee, Gov. Christie left everything he had on the field and it paid off. Christie’s tense exchange with Senator Paul came off as passionate, rather than mean spirited. During the exchange Christie lampooned the libertarian-minded senator for putting rhetoric on liberty above the safety of the American people, to big applause. Christie also gave deft answers to questions on New Jersey’s economic and budgetary situations. For a candidate in danger of not making the main event, Christie demonstrated he deserved to be there.
There are nine more Republican debates tentatively scheduled. Democratic candidates have agreed to a total of six and have set dates for their first four. The next GOP presidential contest is September 16 at the Reagan Ranch in California and will be hosted by CNN.