Amid the personal attack ruckus that marked the beginning of the second GOP presidential candidate debate, the entertainment factor began to plummet and substance took its place.
Throughout the marathon dust-up – three hours, which apparently many found too long – we heard more and more about vital topics and less and less discussion about weeks-old utterings by Donald Trump.
Make no mistake about it, Trump is still the front-runner and he continues to dominate the race, set the agenda and drive the media coverage. He’s the reason many people are watching these debates. It’s the entertainment factor derived from Trump making wisecracks and mocking the politicians and telling the media elites he does not care what they think about him.
And what can be bad for democracy when record numbers of people are watching political debates? Nothing.
But in the Sept. 16 debate, unlike the first go-round last month, the candidates eventually got down to the business of focusing on issues rather than fixating on Donald. Even Donald managed to talk about a few things other than himself.
The debate evolved into solid discussions about the pathetic and scary Iran nuclear deal made by President Obama, foreign policy in general, states’ rights, and Planned Parenthood. There were flashes of humor and even respect.
As Trump said in an interview after the debate when asked if there was more civility among the candidates this time versus the first debate, “Yes. We are out on the campaign trail together and you get to know one another.”
It’s important to remember that the first primaries won’t be held until February and the general election is more than a year away. Handicapping the candidates’ chances of success in weekly polls and after every debate hardly provides a good guess much less concrete evidence as to who will win.
Early though it is, Carly Fiorina emerged from this debate looking much more like a serious contender than she did when she launched what was widely considered a long-shot campaign last May. She stood out from the pack with her knowledge of foreign affairs and detailed descriptions of actions she would take on her first day in office, if elected.
Fiorina can appear wooden and almost mechanical in her responses but she can easily soften her stern image by dropping her guard and showing some warmth.
She lost the chance to do this when asked to respond to insulting comments about her looks that Trump made in a Rolling Stone interview. Her answer was on target but lacked even a hint of humor; a quick-witted campaign adviser might have armed her a quip about Trump’s appearance – a droll remark about his hair, perhaps?
Fiorina, however, displayed compelling emotion when describing the pain she and her husband endured in losing a child to drug addiction.
The former Hewlett Packard CEO’s biggest problem is that she lacks the overall political capital in the Republican Party to get the necessary backing from the folks who control spending and donations for GOP candidates.
Among the other debaters, Florida Sen. Marco Rubio scored points on foreign affairs and other matters of substance. Ohio Gov. John Kasich – when he had a chance to get a word in edgewise – came across as solid, calm and knowledgeable. His chances of winning the presidential nomination seem remote, at best, but he’s setting himself up as an excellent vice presidential running mate for the eventual nominee.
Ben Carson, the retired neurosurgeon who’s been running second to Trump in some polls, is impressive and likeable but his public persona is probably not strong enough to appeal to voters who seem to be looking for a fiery standard-bearer in this presidential cycle.
Jeb Bush grew stronger as the night wore on and he looks and acts “presidential.” Image matters.
All the Republicans can make a solid case for their candidacy – and all are primed to make a debate extremely uncomfortable for the presumptive Democratic candidate, Hillary Clinton. Now that will be real theater, real entertainment.
Still, this is a horse race for the Republicans. Donald Trump is the speed horse in the field. He broke fast from the gate and continues to lead through the early stages of the race. But they’ve only run a quarter mile or so, and the stalkers are gaining ground. There might even be a deep closer languishing at the back of the pack, gearing up for a ferocious charge to the finish line.
Richard Connor is chairman of the parent company of Fort Worth Business, DRC Media. Contact him at email@example.com.