The Winners and the Losers: The 2nd Republican Presidential Debate

By Narrelle Gilchrist

Two weeks ago, we were treated to three hours of reality television – an intense competition to see which of fifteen candidates would stay standing, or at least, keep their poll numbers up. The 2nd Republican Presidential Debate proved just as interesting as the first. From the night emerged several clear winners and losers, but time will only tell how the candidates will fare over the next few months in front of the world’s toughest judges: the American people. For now, here are the highlights.

Winners

Marco Rubio – The Florida Senator emerged from the night looking the most polished, professional, and oratorically skilled. While most candidates had a few shining moments, but fell flat at others, the Senator never failed to deliver insightful and smooth answers to the tough questions. One of his best moments came when he discussed his comprehensive immigration plan, one that addressed the three issues – the entrance of illegal immigrants into our nation, the failure of our system for legally entering the countries, and the illegal immigrants who are currently residing in our country. His clear outline of these three issues, and his proposed responses to each, looked well thought-out and practical, especially when compared to Donald’s Trump blunt, unsubstantial but widely publicized immigration plan to just “build a wall.” Rubio also responded with clear policy on foreign issues and even domestic issues such as gun control. Although he has lost much of the media limelight, the Senator is starting to see his numbers pick back up, for as other candidates have faltered, he has remained strong and composed, and in the 2nd debate, that composure showed.

Jeb Bush – Governor Bush needed an energetic, robust performance at this debate after he felt flat in August, and he had it. Right from the start, he seemed much more prepared and ready to answer the tough questions and take on Donald Trump, who even snidely remarked, “More energy tonight, I like that,” as the two men sparred. One of the most well received moments of the debate came when he defended his brother, George W. Bush, against Trump’s attacks. “He kept us safe,” Jeb declared, to one of the longest applauses of the night. After years of Bush-bashing, many establishment Republicans appreciated this long-needed defense. Bush also took on Trump in regards to his past attempts to influence politicians, his connections to Hillary Clinton, and even his comments about Bush’s Hispanic wife. He directly demanded that Trump apologize to his wife in one of the most memorable moments of the debate, even though many viewers thought he could have pushed the moment farther when Trump refused. Coming into the debate with low expectations, Bush certainly surprised the audience, and he regained his standing as a potential front-runner for the nomination.

Carly Fiorina – Battling her way onto the main stage, Fiorina needed to present herself as a real contender for the nomination – and she did. She was on the offensive from the start, calling out Donald Trump for his sexist, rude comments about her appearance. “I think women all over this country heard very clearly what Mr. Trump said,” she declared to general applause. Later on the debate, Fiorina and Trump devolved into a heated discussion about their records, as both former business executives led their companies to financial ruin. Fiorina scored several significant points against Trump, even though her own record did come under legitimate scrutiny. Later, Fiorina achieved an emotional, heartfelt moment when she spoke about drug abuse, describing her own experience of burying a child lost to addiction. In the aftermath of the debate, many called Fiorina “the clearest winner,”[1] and she soon skyrocketed to 2nd place in the polls.[2] This media hype is sure to garner her not just supporters but also donors, ensuring that she will remain in the race for quite some time.

No Help, No Loss

Donald Trump – Once again, the Donald earned quite a bit of the limelight and air time, but his performance will doubtfully help him – though it won’t hurt him either. His supporters will applaud his performance – he once again went after career politicians and Washington – but he isn’t likely to gain any new supporters because of the debate. Right from the beginning, he revealed himself as the attacker that he is, immediately slamming Rand Paul without provocation, stating that with only one percent of the polls, he shouldn’t even be on the stage. When Rand Paul responded in kind, stating that all Trump ever did was criticize other people’s appearances, Trump answered, “I never criticized your appearance, even though there is plenty of material there.” Trump came under heat from almost every other candidate, but though several candidates made successful hits, none succeeded in completing debunking his presence as a major contender for the nomination. Time will only tell how much longer the Donald will stay standing in the polls.

Chris Christie – The governor known for his angry, aggressive personality neither gained nor lost after the 2nd debate. While he managed to maintain enough of a presence to keep him on the stage of first-tier candidates, he didn’t deliver an impressive-enough performance to boost his numbers significantly. His on-air time seemed slightly limited, and while he seized every opportunity to rebut the claims of the other candidates, those opportunities, too, seemed few and far between. Therefore, Governor Christie will continue to just cling on to a top-tier spot in the polls, but is unlikely to skyrocket to the top anytime soon.

Rand Paul – Like in the first debate, Rand Paul showed his strong Libertarian roots, shoring up his base of supporters – but simultaneously pushing away any others. His strongest moments came when defending his views on drug use and foreign policy, but his isolationist ideas came into sharp contrast with the rhetoric of the foreign policy hawks on the stage. Paul demonstrated once again that he really is out-of-step with the views of the average Republican. Therefore, while he may remain in the polls due to his strong base of Libertarian supporters, it is doubtful that he will gain any more support or have a shot at becoming a top contender for the nomination.

Losers

CNN – The network certainly received great viewer ratings, but the way in which it carried out the debate seemed disorganized and generated substantial criticism. Firstly, stretching the debate for three hours was simply unnecessary, and ended up pushing a lot of the viewers to turn off the TV as it entered the third hour, even though that was when many of the hot-button issues were discussed. The moderators also spent the first thirty minutes making the candidates talk solely about Donald Trump, pushing them to attack him and respond to his personal attacks against each candidate. Eventually, John Kasich had to complain about the lack of real issues in the debate, until the moderator assured him they would be getting to the policy issues very soon. Furthermore, the moderators clearly favored some candidates over the others. While Donald Trump got 19 minutes of speaking time, Mike Huckabee and Scott Walker received barely 9 minutes. [3] Throughout the night, only one moderator, Jake Tapper, did most of the talking, leaving the other two moderators, Dana Bash and Hugh Hewitt, sitting awkwardly except for a few privileged questions. This arrangement struck many as bizarre and unnecessary. In addition, the network chose not to use a buzzer to remind the candidates, and the audience, when their time was up. Instead, the moderators were left to call “Thank you, next,” every minute, while the candidates continued to talk over them, undoubtedly irritating both the candidates and the viewers. The network’s constant gaffes and disorganization did not go unnoticed, and will certainly be the subject of criticism for some time.

Scott Walker – The Governor of Wisconsin, who has steadily been slipping in the polls, once more failed to put in the breakaway appearance that he needed. While he had one good moment defending George W. Bush, and spoke the most when discussing fiscal policy, he remained unimpressive, and indeed, silent, for most of the three hours. In the days that followed, he continued to slip in the polls, eventually failing to garner even 0.5% of likely GOP voters in a CNN poll. On September 21st, 2015, Scott Walker announced that he was officially dropping out of the presidential primary. “I did the best I could,” he told supporters, and felt that he was doing his duty in “helping to clear the field in this race so that a positive, conservative message can rise to the top of the field.”[4] The fall and departure of the governor, who was once short-listed as a front-runner, can no doubt be partially attributed to his lackluster performance in the presidential debates, once again demonstrating how crucial these debates can be in influencing the decisions of the American people.

Ben Carson – After the doctor’s shining, impressive performance at the first debate, he failed to meet expectations at this critical event. He lacked energy and some of his usual charm and came off sounding, while likable, just not presidential. He ducked out of several golden opportunities to contrast himself from Trump as measured and knowledgeable, as many expected the 2nd highest polling candidate to do. The doctor could have easily debunked Trump’s sketchy, scientific claims during their discussion of vaccines, but he chose not to do so, making him seem less impressive and noticeable. While still a major contender for the nomination, Carson no longer seems like the ideal candidate, and his poll numbers may begin to become as stagnant as the doctor seemed during the CNN debate.

Mike Huckabee and Ted Cruz – The former Governor of Arkansas has gotten much time on the media recently for his defense of Kim Davis, but he didn’t get nearly as much time during the debate, and neither did fellow establishment candidate Ted Cruz. Both of these seasoned candidates simply faded into the background during the 2nd debate, failing to seize opportunities to speak and go after other candidates. While they both answered knowledgeably and smoothly in the time they had, that time simply wasn’t enough for them to stand out on the stage – or to truly leave any impression at all.

John Kasich – Just like Ben Carson, Governor Kasich failed to match his break-out, impressive performance from the first debate. He too just wasn’t that memorable and didn’t score the zingers that attracted the attention of voters and donors in August, when he barely squeaked onto the main stage. Without another stunning performance, the Governor of Ohio may soon fade back into the lower-tier of candidates.

Final Thoughts

With a year to go before the election takes place and the field still wide open, truly anything can happen, but the 2nd Republican Primary Debate certainly proved that such events will remain crucial in the year to come. Already, one top-tier candidate has fallen, and surely, more are to follow. Polls rise and fall, supporters will come and go, but one thing is for sure: the roller-coaster ride of the 2016 primary has only just begun.

Works Cited

Balluck, Kyle. “Fiorina Jumps to Second Place in Post-Debate Poll.” The Hill. September 20th, 2015. September 30th, 2015. http://thehill.com/blogs/ballot-box/presidential-races/254305-fiorina-jumps-to-second-place-in-post-debate-poll

Bradner, Eric, et al. “Scott Walker Drops Out of 2016 Presidential Race.” CNN. September 21st, 2015. September 30th, 2015. http://www.cnn.com/2015/09/21/politics/scott-walker-drops-out-2016-election/

Diamond, Jeremy. “CNN’s Republican Debate: Winners and Losers.” CNN. September 17th, 2015. September 30th, 2015. http://www.cnn.com/2015/09/17/politics/republican-debate-winners-losers-donald-trump/

Gold, Hadas. “CNN’s Three Hour Debate From Hell.” Politico. September 17th, 2015. September 30th, 2015. http://www.politico.com/story/2015/09/gop-debate-cnn-disaster-213766

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[1] Diamond, Jeremy. “CNN’s Republican Debate: Winners and Losers.” CNN. September 17th, 2015. September 30th, 2015. http://www.cnn.com/2015/09/17/politics/republican-debate-winners-losers-donald-trump/

[2] Balluck, Kyle. “Fiorina Jumps to Second Place in Post-Debate Poll.” The Hill. September 20th, 2015. September 30th, 2015. http://thehill.com/blogs/ballot-box/presidential-races/254305-fiorina-jumps-to-second-place-in-post-debate-poll

[3] Gold, Hadas. “CNN’s Three Hour Debate From Hell.” Politico. September 17th, 2015. September 30th, 2015. http://www.politico.com/story/2015/09/gop-debate-cnn-disaster-213766

[4] Bradner, Eric, et al. “Scott Walker Drops Out of 2016 Presidential Race.” CNN. September 21st, 2015. September 30th, 2015. http://www.cnn.com/2015/09/21/politics/scott-walker-drops-out-2016-election/

Narrelle is a homeschooled teen from West Palm Beach, Florida. In addition to writing, she enjoys singing in a choir and playing piano, and loves literature, politics, history, astronomy, and physics. 

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