From a horse race perspective, last night marked the beginning of the decline of the Trump phenomenon, and the rise of the conservative mainstream.
For most of the public, the presidential race did not come into focus until last night. Dominated by the biggest name (Bush) and the biggest mouth (duh) in the summer media doldrums, the campaign and the enormous field of candidates was too hard to understand for your average voter.
Today, after record viewership (an estimated 24 million, more than any other cable news program ever), the public was treated to an abundant buffet of highly-qualified and serious candidates–with many of those candidates getting their first opportunity to introduce themselves to the voting public.
In other words, the public is now much more aware of their choices than they were before. The candidates on the losing end of that are likely to be those with poll numbers inflated by early name ID (e.g., Bush) and Donald Trump, as conservatives discover they have a credible menu of other choices who are, to varying degrees, both more conservative and more electable than the early frontrunners.
The petals are starting fall off the Donald Trump bloom. This man, whose public life has been characterized by a series of opportunistic ideological oscillations that evince not a shred of understanding of what it means to be a conservative, came across as obnoxious–particularly to women. He’s right that immigration–a huge issue for mainstream conservatives–is only front and center now because he made it so. That’s a good thing, and he’s done us all a service by bringing the issue into sharp focus. But he’s not the guy to carry the message, and he further demonstrated last night that he’s not committed to the conservative cause unless the conservative cause first commits itself to him.
Governor Bush was clearly playing it safe, and seemed most focused on avoiding gaffes, which consequently made him appear on a few occasions to be stilted and stiff (and at least once, a bit nervous). This strategy by the best-funded candidate might pay off, but a better play would have been not to rely on being the “next-in-line” establishment favorite when (a) there are so many other attractive choices, and (b) there is a prevalent mood among conservatives to not anoint the next Mitt McDole.
Governor Christie had a good performance. Although Sen. Rand Paul is clearly right when he says it needn’t be a threat to national security to require a judicial warrant to conduct searches, Christie won his testy joust with the Kentucky senator, who had a flat performance overall.
The hometown favorite Governor John Kasich is a good thinker, and a good talker, and that came through as usual last night. He hasn’t yet reached his zenith, and has the stature and conservative credibility to go the distance, but I and many other conservatives struggled to keep down our dinners when he proclaimed expanding Medicaid under Obamacare was the Reaganite thing to do.
Dr. Ben Carson, well, we hardly knew ye. Governor Mike Huckabee again showed that he was probably the most articulate guy on the stage, but again also showed that he lacks star power. These two gentlemen are at the bottom of the pack in terms of likelihood of victory.
That leaves the three candidates who probably helped themselves the most, the mainstream conservative trio of Governor Scott Walker, Senator Marco Rubio, and Senator Ted Cruz. Cruz did a good job of positioning himself as the most solid movement conservative, but by doing so might have limited his appeal.
To me the ones to watch are Rubio, who shined and demonstrated that he could be a real asset at the top of the ticket, and Walker. The Wisconsin Governor has the experience of a chief executive like Bush and Christie but the conservative chops like Cruz and Paul. Plus, now he’s got Virginia Senator Mark Obenshain in his corner as his Virginia Chairman…a real coup, and a reminder that Obenshain is a smart player with a future.
Finally, the dark horse of this campaign emerged from the shadows yesterday when former Hewlett-Packard CEO Carly Fiorina absolutely dominated the under-card 5:00 PM debate. Her performance and the buzz surrounding it virtually guarantees a big bump in the polls, and a spot on the main stage for the next debate. She gave by far the most impressive performance of any candidate yesterday, and just might soon find herself in the top tier.
As liberal New York Times columnist Frank Bruni noted, “Fiorina weds Trump’s anger to an uncommon precision and propulsion: She’s a human torpedo.” Keep an eye on this one. And check out how she absolutely demolished Chris Matthews in a post-debate interview on MSNBC. You might not want her as your president, but you’re out of your mind if you don’t want her featured on the main stage: