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Winners and losers from the CNN debate

🕐 5 min read

Fifteen Republican candidates spent the better part of five hours — more on that later — debating at the Ronald Reagan presidential library on Wednesday night. I watched the entire marathon live and jotted down some of the bests and worsts of the night.

Before you ask, no, I didn’t put Donald Trump in either the “winner” or “loser” category. I thought he was shockingly light on the specifics of what he would do as president and issued a series of seemingly unnecessary ad hominem attacks against his rivals. His answers on Syria and vaccines were just plain bad. But, I am not sure any of that matters to the people who have rallied to his cause.



– Carly Fiorina: The former HP executive won the so-called “kids table” debate last month. She stepped up to the big stage on Wednesday night and won this debate too. Her emotional call to a higher moral authority when talking about Planned Parenthood was the most affecting moment of the debate. The second most affecting moment of the debate was when she talked about how she had buried a child due to drug addiction. Fiorina’s answer to Trump’s comments about her looks was pitch perfect and brought a huge roar from the crowd. She was poised, well versed – particularly on foreign policy – and beat back attacks on her time as CEO of HP relatively well.

– Marco Rubio: He was handicapped somewhat by a lack of speaking time but he did extremely well – for the second straight debate – with the time he was given. Rubio was extremely knowledgeable – almost to the point of being too rehearsed – on foreign policy; for most of the debate he seemed like the person on the stage who knew the most about virtually every topic being discussed. Rubio didn’t get a huge bounce from his strong showing in the first debate. Will this time be different?

– Ted Cruz: The Texas senator knows how to talk to the Republican base. Obamacare, Supreme Court appointees, the way Washington works – Cruz bashed them all effectively. He also went out of his way to praise Trump – in keeping with his strategy of playing nice with the real estate star in hopes of, eventually, winning over his voters.

– Undercard debate: I’ll admit it – I wasn’t expecting much. Only four candidates for 90+ minutes, all of whom were polling at 1 percent (or lower) in national polling. And yet, the debate was substantive, engaging and enlightening. It also served to show why having 11 candidates on a single stage is dumb when it comes to educating voters about the choice before them.

– Lindsey Graham: I thought – and wrote – that the South Carolina senator would be the star of the “kids table” debate last month in Cleveland. He wasn’t. But, on Wednesday night in California, Graham showed his natural gifts as a candidate. He was funny and forceful and made the case for why he deserves consideration for a Cabinet post or even, maybe, the vice presidential slot.

– Chris Christie: Think about the candidates on the fringes of the main debate stage. The only one who really stood out was the New Jersey governor who was funny and reasonable. His best moment came when he talked about how he navigated, both personally and professionally, in the aftermath of Sept. 11. Christie showed a glimmer of what many people liked about him way back when.

– Jeb Bush, hour 3: Where was this Jeb during the first two hours (a.k.a. when people were watching)? He was terrific on Iran, drew huge applause for defending his brother from Trump and had a great line about his mom still being angry at him for smoking pot in high school. He was great. But probably too late.

– CNN: The ratings – especially for the first hour or so – are going to be bananas.


– Scott Walker: If anyone needed a moment (or three) in this debate, it was the Wisconsin governor. He didn’t get one. Despite a relatively prime stage position – he was standing next to Jeb Bush in the center-right of the stage – Walker was sort of a nonentity. He needed to make headlines; he didn’t.

– Mike Huckabee: Where. Was. He.

– Rand Paul: Paul’s best/only moment was a clash with Christie over pot. And it came in the third (or fourth?) hour of the debate. For large portions of the debate, Paul was either a) totally invisible or b) getting absolutely owned by Trump. Not so good.

– Air conditioning: Judging by how sweaty the candidates were – Rubio and Cruz, I am looking at you – the AC wasn’t turned up (down? I never know) nearly enough. As someone who needs it to be in the low 70s (at most) to be at all comfortable, I feel for you guys. Future debate hosts: Set that thermostat on 60 and let’s dance!

– Jeb Bush, hours 1 and 2: Jeb came out flat. And, every time he tried to slam Trump, it quickly became clear that he just didn’t have the heart for it. Jeb’s answer about his last name – the most obvious question there is – seemed to catch him off guard (again) and his response about how the last two Republican presidents were his dad and his brother was bad.

– Rick Santorum: The former Pennsylvania senator spent the vast majority of the first debate angry. He clashed repeatedly with Graham – and repeatedly got the worst of it. Santorum still doesn’t appear to have made peace with the fact that despite his second place (sort of) finish in 2012, he’s not gaining traction just yet in this race.

– Debate length: THREE PLUS HOURS for the main debate. Look. I love politics. A lot. But that was (and is) simply too long. It’s asking a massive amount of the candidates, the moderators and the people watching. Two hours should be the absolute longest any future debate goes.

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