The first Republican Presidential Primary debate of 2016 is in the books and it was eventful to say the least.
With a field of 17 candidates, there were major questions going into the debate. Would political novice Donald Trump be able to maintain his lead in the polls faced with a field of policy experts that included sitting Senators and Governors? The celebrity businessman and reality TV star continuously downplayed expectations in the media in the weeks leading up to the big night while others expected that his particular brand of charisma would carry the night. Would establishment favorite Jeb Bush be able to draw conservatives to his side? Would Rand Paul, once heralded as the man to transform the Republican Party and considered a front-runner for the nomination, be able to fend off growing concerns that his campaign was failing to meet expectations?
Between two debates, one at 5 pm and the top tier debate at 9 pm, voters got the first answers to these and many other questions.
Here’s what you need to know.
What were the most heated moments?
There are several exchanges that you will likely see replayed repeatedly on cable news in the weeks ahead.
First, Rand Paul hit Donald Trump hard and early. The first question of the night was whether all the candidates on the stage would commit to supporting the eventual nominee and whether they would rule out running as an Independent, a move that would almost certainly hand the nomination to the eventual Democrat nominee, probably Hilary Clinton. The one candidate who refused to commit to supporting the Republican Party was Donlad Trump and Rand Paul pounced on the opportunity.
PAUL: I mean, this is what’s wrong. He buys and sells politicians of all stripes, he’s already hedging his bet on the Clintons… if he doesn’t run as a Republican, maybe he supports Clinton, or maybe he runs as an independent.
Trump is widely known to have been a supporter of both Democrat candidates and Leftist policies for most of his life. Only a few years ago, Trump supported socialized medicine, late-term abortions, and amnesty for illegal immigrants. He has been a heavy donor to Democrats including Nancy Pelosi and possible future opponent Hilary Clinton. This lead moderator Megyn Kelly to press Trump on when exactly he became a Republican, to which he had no coherent answer. Trump clearly lost the exchange and will likely suffer in the polls because of it.
Second, again involving Rand Paul, was a clash between the “libertarian-ish” Senator and big-government Republican Governor Chris Christie. Christie accused Rand Paul of making the United States weaker by standing up to illegal NSA spying on innocent Americans; he even went as far as to say that Paul “should be called before Congress to answer for it if we should be hit by another terrorist attack.” The New Jersey governor then began speaking about 9/11, despite the fact that reports have consistently shown that collecting the phone records of all Americans without warrants has not stopped a single terrorist attack. Rand took exception with this sensationalism.
PAUL: I want to collect more records from terrorists, but less records from innocent Americans. The Fourth Amendment was what we fought the Revolution over! John Adams said it was the spark that led to our war for independence, and I’m proud of standing for the Bill of Rights, and I will continue to stand for the Bill of Rights.
CHRISTIE: And — and, Megyn? Megyn, that’s a — that, you know, that’s a completely ridiculous answer. “I want to collect more records from terrorists, but less records from other people.” How are you supposed to know, Megyn?
PAUL: Use the Fourth Amendment!
….(CHRISTIE interrupts, followed by back and forth)
PAUL: Get a warrant! Get a judge to sign the warrant!
CHRISTIE: Listen, Senator, you know, when you’re sitting in a subcommittee, just blowing hot air about this, you can say things like that. When you’re responsible for protecting the lives of the American people, then what you need to do is to make sure that you use the system the way it’s supposed to work.
PAUL: Here’s the problem, governor. You fundamentally misunderstand the Bill of Rights. Every time you did a case, you got a warrant from a judge. I’m talking about searches without warrants, indiscriminately, of all Americans’ records, and that’s what I fought to end.
I don’t trust President Obama with our records. I know you gave him a big hug, and if you want to give him a big hug again, go right ahead.
CHRISTIE: You know, Senator Paul, the hugs that I remember are the hugs that I gave to the families who lost their people on September 11th.
In the exchange, Rand largely tried to stick to substantive discussion related to civil liberties and national security while Christie tried to play on emotions and fear by deflecting to talk about 9/11 victims. Different types of voters will disagree over who won the exchange, with low information voters being more likely to fall for Christie’s ploys.
Yet, while Senator Paul likely edged out his opponents in both exchanges with a majority of viewers, going negative so early runs the risk of dragging his campaign down as well. Rand Paul is best when he sticks to policy and substance and his new found negativity likely did more to tear down his opponents than to broaden his own appeal.
Who did the best?
The candidate who looked most presidential in the 9pm debate was Marco Rubio. The freshman Senator managed to stay out of the back and forth with other candidates, which can often do more harm than good even if a candidate “wins” the exchange. Rubio stayed on his message, offered coherent and reasonable answers to every question, and even managed to turn back a few gotcha questions from the moderators:
KELLY: Senator Rubio, you favor rape and incest exceptions to abortion bans. Cardinal Timothy Dolan of New York just said yesterday those exceptions are preposterous. He said they discriminate against an entire class of human beings. If you believe that life begins at conception, as you say you do, how do you justify ending a life just because it begins violently, through no fault of the baby?
RUBIO: Well, Megyn, first of all, I’m not sure that that’s a correct assessment of my record. I would go on to add that I believe all–
KELLY: You don’t favor a rape and incest exception?
RUBIO: I have never said that. And I have never advocated that. What I have advocated is that we pass a law in this country that says all human life at every stage of its development is worthy of protection. In fact, I think that law already exists. It is called the Constitution of the United States.
RUBIO: And let me go further. I believe that every single human being is entitled to the protection of our laws, whether they can vote or not. Whether they can speak or not. Whether they can hire a lawyer or not. Whether they have a birth certificate or not. And I think future generations will look back at this history of our country and call us barbarians for murdering millions of babies who we never gave them a chance to live.
The moment was one of many in which Rubio looked like the rising star he was touted to be a few years ago. But his best moment of the night was when he was asked about his own electability and took on Hilary Clinton directly:
RUBIO: This election cannot be a resume competition. It’s important to be qualified, but if this election is a resume competition, then Hillary Clinton’s gonna be the next president, because she’s been in office and in government longer than anybody else running here tonight.
Here’s what this election better be about: This election better be about the future, not the past. It better be about the issues our nation and the world is facing today, not simply the issues we once faced.
This country is facing an economy that has been radically transformed. You know, the largest retailer in the country and the world today, Amazon, doesn’t even own a single store? And these changes have been disruptive. They have changed people’s lives. The jobs that once sustained our middle class, they either don’t pay enough or they are gone, and we need someone that understands that as our nominee.
If I’m our nominee, how is Hillary Clinton gonna lecture me about living paycheck to paycheck? I was raised paycheck to paycheck.
How is she gonna lecture me about student loans? I owed over $100,000 just four years ago.
If I’m our nominee, we will be the party of the future.
Rubio is almost certain to go up in the polls after his performance.
Earlier in the night, Carly Fiorina had a stand-out performance of her own that will likely ensure she ends up in the top tier debate next time around.
Who did the worst?
The two clear losers of the night are Donald Trump and Chris Christie. Trump looked bad throughout the night, dodging questions of substance, attacking moderator Megyn Kelly after being asked about his previous attacks on women, and generally living up to the expectations of those who believe he is a distraction rather than a serious candidate for president.
Chris Christie’s exchange with Rand Paul may not have a large effect on the Governor’s standing with Republicans, but Christie is already among the least popular among Republicans and it would not take much of a drop in polling to knock him out of the top ten. Perhaps more importantly, his ardent defense of the expansion of warrantless domestic spying makes him completely non-viable in a general election, where Independents, Liberty Republicans, and many Democrats will consider the issue a deal breaker.
A number of other candidates failed to make an impression either way, including Jeb Bush, John Kasich, and Scott Walker. While there’s certainly a lot of time left in the election, failing to be memorable can sometimes be even worse this early in the election than getting negative press.
The next debate will be moderated by CNN on September 16th at the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library.