Tonight’s Debate: Who Won?

I watched the presidential debate while commenting and following the steady stream of commentary on Power Line Live. It was interesting: whereas virtually everyone agreed about the preliminary debate this afternoon, there was no consensus at all about what happened tonight among the 1,000 or so people on our live site.

I suspect that how one reacted to tonight’s event depended on one’s expectations. Viewers who thought it was going to be all about Donald Trump and Jeb Bush were probably surprised. In general, I thought the candidates one should expect to do well, did do well.

But first this observation: Fox News had a bad night. The event began weirdly, with the hosts calling the candidates on to the stage and then stalling with inane banter for five minutes or so. What followed was a series of relentlessly negative questions which seemed designed mostly to show that Fox wasn’t going easy on the GOP candidates. Fine, but what were we watching, MSNBC? The negative tone continued for most of the evening.

Who performed well? Ted Cruz was very good, as should have been expected. He was a national champion debater. For some reason, though, he didn’t draw as many questions as some of the others. Marco Rubio was consistently excellent, I thought. Mike Huckabee, sadly, reminded us why he is perhaps the most talented politician going. Chris Christie was very, very good. Early on, Rand Paul tangled with Christie, to his regret. Scott Walker was pretty good, although not very inspiring. He may be the most unflappable guy I have ever seen.

That’s half of the field. Trump got off to a very rocky start, and it looked early on as though he might flame out entirely. The evening’s most dramatic moment was when Trump, and only Trump, refused to pledge to support the Republican nominee–unless it is Donald Trump. As the evening went on, he performed better and probably didn’t hurt himself with those who are disposed to favor him. I thought Jeb Bush did quite well, probably better than I expected. But his performance wasn’t strong compared with Cruz, Christie, Rubio and Huckabee. Someone watching the debate cold would never guess that Bush is supposed to be one of the front-runners.

Dr. Carson is a popular figure and didn’t embarrass himself, but generally looked out of place. Rand Paul did, too. He never had much opportunity to articulate a libertarian message, and his early skirmish with Christie took the wind out of his sails. John Kasich did fine, but I am hard pressed to see much rationale for his candidacy.

I don’t think there were any huge winners or losers tonight, except perhaps the Republican field as a whole. Despite the negativity of most of the questions, it was fun to see spirited exchanges and a wide array of more than competent performances. The Democrats could never muster anything like it. Voters who have been paying attention probably weren’t surprised by the impressive performances of Cruz, Rubio, Huckabee and Christie, any of whom could run rings around Hillary Clinton. But more casual observers, who may have expected the event to be all about Donald Trump, likely were impressed by most of the candidates they saw tonight.

With ten candidates on the stage (not to mention those who participated in the preliminary event), it was impossible for anyone to dominate. One way or another, the field is going to have to be winnowed down so that a few top contenders can emerge. Tonight didn’t go very far toward determining who those contenders will ultimately be. At this point, I think the race is wide open.