The first GOP debates of 2015 were on Thursday night. Each candidate had their own expectations and goals for the night, so I tried to judge them based on those, rather than on how accurate what they said was, how well I thought they would have done if they’d all started with the same expectations, or how well I thought they did based on my personal opinions of them or their positions. I missed the first debate (Or, as Lindsey Graham called it, “The Happy Hour Debate”), because it came on while I was at work. So, I only got to see the debate with the top ten candidates in an average of five polls (a questionable selection method that has received plenty of criticism). But, even though I missed the GOB-Team, I got to see the sparks fly for the Top 10. So, without further ado, this is my review of each of the Top 10:
Donald “The Donald” Trump
Trump was the reason viewership for this debate was sky high, and he didn’t disappoint, except for when he did. He had lots of soundbites, and he seemed ready when talking about certain issues. However, he wasn’t very good at answering questions about how his views have changed over the years. When “explaining” topics he’d completely flipped on, he seemed to think that saying nonsense with confidence would get him through. He also had this weird look on his face, like he was trying to look dignified, but he just looked like an ostrich. An ostrich who could manage a snappy comeback when other candidates or Megyn Kelly pressed him, but not so much when Chris Wallace did. At times, Trump also seemed like he just expected one-liners to get him through the entire debate, which worked sometimes, but not others. If you had low expectations for Trump, he did okay. If you somehow had high expectations for him, he did not.
Scott “Am I Seriously One of the Frontrunners?” Walker
Governor of Wisconsin
Walker basically just talked about how great of a governor he was and hit conservative themes. If other candidates hadn’t already done it, he probably would have put me to sleep – even though he sometimes spoke loudly for no reason. Maybe he thought his generic conservative themes would sound more exciting if he yelled them? They didn’t, but he played it safe enough that he probably won’t drop much in the polls. Bottom line – If you’ve ever heard Scott Walker give a speech, you’ve heard last night’s debate performance.
Jeb “Don’t Say my Last Name” Bush, aka Jeb “It’s My Turn” Bush
Former Governor of Florida, Professional Bush
How do you distinguish yourself from your brother for voters, but not for fundraisers? Probably not how Bush did it Thursday night. He did say a few unconventional things and went a little away from mainstream conservative views on certain issues (like Common Core and immigration), but he had so little charisma and so much awkwardness, who knows if anyone actually noticed? Still, no major mistakes for one of the frontrunners.
Ben “Benadryl” Carson, aka Ben Carsonarcolepsy
When Ben Carson was a neurosurgeon, he must have saved a ton of money, because he easily could have put his patients to sleep just by talking. One time when he was asked a question, he made what I think was supposed to be a joke about how the moderators weren’t asking him any questions. Once he answered, you could see why: Carson + Generic Conservative Ideas = Cure for Insomnia. Carson didn’t do anything to distinguish himself from the pack, unless you consider “putting people to sleep” a positive. Oh, and for any budding comedians out there, take a look at some of his other “jokes,” so you can see how not to tell one. I don’t know how Carson made it into this debate, because he didn’t say anything that set him apart from any other candidate or was even remotely exciting.
Mike “Why Am I Running?” Huckabee, aka Mike “Fairy Tale Tax” Huckabee
Former Governor of Arkansas, Current Talk Show Host
I don’t know why Huckabee is running (or still supporting the Fair Tax), but the things that set him apart in his ’08 campaign have completely disappeared. He now talks like a knee-jerk conservative, but he did have a lot of soundbite-worthy quotes last night. He was definitely the evangelical candidate, and he even had a few “jokes.” While they were rarely funny, he at least had the delivery down and got more justified laughs than Carson did. Almost every claim he made about everything was either completely wrong or even more wrong, but there’s certainly a part of the base that appeals to. Huckabee was basically a more charismatic, more animated version of Rick Santorum. He wasn’t really anything special, but he did appeal to more of a niche base than many of the other candidates.
John “Crazy Hands” Kasich
Governor of Ohio
Being the governor of the state the debate was in, it seemed like Kasich got applause every time the moderators said his name. And, even though that applause wasn’t always justified, I would consider him to be one of the big winners last night. Kasich came off as awkward at times, and he used his hands to talk in ways that were distracting, but he actually strayed from generic conservative talking points a few times. And, unlike some candidates who claimed they hadn’t done things they’d done (Lookin’ at you, Rubio) he took ownership of them and tried to redefine them as being conservative (For example, saying doing something unconservative was okay, because it made sense morally or religiously). Bush also tried this, but Kasich had a much better, more confident delivery. Maybe it was home field advantage. Then again, they were debating in the exact same building where LeBron lost the Finals, so maybe not.
Chris “Kristofferson” Christie
Governor of New Jersey
In my opinion, the other big winner from last night. Christie didn’t really lose his temper as he often does, and one of the main highlights of the debate was when he got into an argument with Rand Paul over data collection of terrorists. While I actually side more with Paul on this issue, Christie talked specifics and accused Paul of rhetoric, which Paul responded to with…rhetoric. Christie was also probably the second-most confident candidate on stage (Do I really have to tell you who was more confident?) and didn’t have the same awkwardness problems that plagued some of the other candidates. He needed to have a strong night, and he did. He and Kasich both needed to show they were strong, confident, and electable, and looking only at this debate, they appeared to be. However, although Christie set himself apart from the rest of the crowd in a few ways, he also fell into the same, “I’m a great governor, so you should elect me” routine as the other governors on stage.
Rand “Random” Paul
Rand Paul tried to be completely different from everyone else on stage, and it backfired spectacularly. In many ways, Paul’s campaign has been the opposite of Obama’s ’08 campaign. Obama was very vague on policies, so he appealed to different audiences. Paul has tried to be too specific when appealing to different audiences, which has made it incredibly easy to point out his inconsistencies. Instead of using the debate to clarify these contradictions, Paul awkwardly attacked other candidates, then gave rhetorical answers when challenged himself. He took on Trump almost immediately, and one of Trump’s main strengths is snappy comebacks. Paul was definitely the “dish it out but can’t take it” candidate of the night. When asked about specific policies, Paul seemed to think that his answers sounded better and made more sense than they actually did. In other words, the debate was a reflection of his entire campaign – confusing, unorganized, and inconsistent. And, yet, what sense could be made out of his views definitely made him stand out in the crowd.
Ted “Talking Point” Cruz
Remember when there was a concert a while back, and a hologram recording of Tupac “performed”? The way Cruz answered questions, it was like his part was prerecorded. He didn’t stray from talking points, didn’t interact with other candidates, and may as well not have even been addressing specific questions. In fact, if you’ve ever seen Cruz talk on TV, you’ve pretty much seen his debate performance. This was likely based on his current campaign strategy, which is to play it safe until Trump implodes, then hope his “mad as hell”, anti-establishment supporters will flock to his similar style. Cruz probably didn’t do badly enough to lose much of his current support, but if he keeps “debating” like this, he’d better hope Trump implodes soon
Marco “Rube Rube” Rubio
Rubio sounded more optimistic and future-oriented than some of the other candidates and really stuck to his “candidate of the future” routine, although at times, he sounded more like he was doing a campaign commercial than a debate. Of course, some of his “party of the future” strategy is based on a problem he has that other candidates don’t: He’s from Florida, a major early primary state, and he has to compete more directly with Bush, whose career in Florida politics is way longer, and who has raised way more money than everyone else. But, while Bush strayed from conservative talking points, Rubio doubled down on them. The worst example of this was when the moderators asked him about his past support for a bill that allowed abortion exceptions for victims of rape and incest. Rubio shot back at the moderators by saying he’d never supported that bill (even though he had). This isn’t the first time he’s flipped on something in his short Senate career (see Reform, Immigration), but for the purposes of this debate, he came off as a fresh face with quotable moments about how conservative he is. Rubio set out to convince a skeptical conservative base that he’s believably charismatically conservative, and he appeared to make some progress towards that goal.