CLEVELAND – Not to diminish the importance of the first Republican debate, but it felt like the first in a political survivor series.
The question wasn’t so much who won the prime-time skirmish but who eliminated himself to make room for Carly Fiorina – the hands-down winner of the “Happy Hour Debate,” as she dubbed it, and maybe of the larger debate as well.
The deck definitely got shuffled. And, depending on one’s chosen vernacular, Fiorina rocked. She killed. She made a stunning debut.
I had spoken with Fiorina earlier in the day Thursday and asked what her goal was for the evening. Principally, she said she wanted to introduce herself to her party, only 40 percent of whom knew who she was.
She can check that off her list. If people didn’t see the second-tier debate, they heard about Fiorina in the later debate when she was quoted. Even as commentators were evaluating the main event, Fiorina’s name kept coming up as the wow-candidate. In the ensuing months, she’s bound to enjoy a full-press courtship.
The truth is, Fiorina didn’t break new ground in her responses. To those who have followed her campaign thus far, she was on-message, characteristically concise and precise. Perhaps practice makes perfect, and to that point, she’ll need to refresh her script to hold her wow-appeal, as well as the media’s interest.
For Republicans, Fiorina offers some of what they say they like about Trump. A businesswoman rather than a career politician, she tends to offer her appraisals in no-nonsense terms. She has called Hillary Clinton a liar, which, though many Republicans may agree with her, is harsh language to stand by – especially should you become the nominee and have to face Clinton. In my daydreams, I try to imagine a Hillary Clinton/Carly Fiorina debate and it’s a stirring thought. Two smart, tough, dynamic women going toe-to-toe on the nation’s future leadership? Be still my racing heart.
Thursday’s main debate, which looked like a police lineup after a Mad Men bachelor party, offered little opportunity for particulars. But oftentimes, a debate performance, like a speech, is mostly about making an impression. People rarely remember what you say, but they do remember how you made them feel.
As impressions go, a few stood out. Donald Trump failed to be charming. He was churlish, insulting and petulant. Unfortunately, many find those qualities endearing. But the audience booed him more than once.
In a particularly ugly moment, he lashed out at Fox News’ Megyn Kelly when she asked whether, given disparaging remarks he has made about women he dislikes (fat pigs, dogs, slobs and disgusting animals), he has the temperament to be president.
Trump tried to dismiss the question first by saying, unfortunately to much audience appreciation, that he was only talking about Rosie O’Donnell. How could someone think that saying degrading things about any woman is acceptable, much less one who isn’t present to defend herself? Trump is a bully who makes the former leading Republican bully, Chris Christie, seem cherubic by comparison.
Other impressions: Rand Paul is irritable and irascible. Christie, argumentative. The two, who got into a spat about who cares most about civil liberties, either should be separated for future debates or consider becoming a comedy duo. Jeb Bush is a sincere guy who can’t quite find his light switch. He fumbled once again on the most predictable question – whether he would have invaded Iraq. Scott Walker, who distinguished himself as more pro-life than God (no exception even for the life of the mother), uttered perhaps the most irrefutable statement of the evening: “I’m a guy with a wife, two kids and a Harley.”
Mike Huckabee is quick with a quip, but he, too, wants to double-down on abortion. John Kasich is a good guy whose life is defined by family, faith and friends. Ted Cruz is really, really smart.
Ben Carson is a superb neurosurgeon and, frankly, adorable. Who did I leave out? Ah, the winner, Marco Rubio. He’s the young Republican of the future, the first-generation son of immigrants with a quintessential American story. Like Fiorina, he’s fluent in policy, and he even looked like a grown-up Thursday night despite his cursedly boyish looks.
When I asked Fiorina what impression she hoped to make, she said she’d like people to think: “She can win this; she can do this job; and I like her.” And now a lot more Republicans – and Democrats – know her name.
Kathleen Parker’s column is distributed by The Washington Post Writers Group.