I didn't get to watch the full debate last night, so I missed at least one juicy exchange. However, last night's CNN Republican Presidential Debate (hardly the correct term, since they're not even nominees yet, much less President) saw a fairly dramatic and certain shift in how candidates present themselves. First, I want to call out winners and losers.
Winner: Carly Fiorina. Fiorina did not get the exposure of the previous debate, and was absent from much of the dialogue of the national press. However, for people who follow politics, Fiorina tore up the post-debate sunday talk show circuit. That earned her a post-debate bounce in the polling that got her up as high as a 6.3 share. This gave her leverage and her supporters earned her the right to sit at the grownup table. She siezed that opportunity to present herself as a strong woman who isn't a bitch. She also showed what a smart lady she was, effortlessly talking to domestic issues but also presenting a bold, strong foreign policy perspective. Expect her numbers to grow rapidly in the first few post-debate polls.
Loser: Trumps braggadocio fell flat last night, partly because Trump was clearly trying to restrain himself, but partly because Trump could not defend some of his ad hominem attacks against his fellow candidates. Other candidates like Paul and Christie were quick to seize on them and take the high road by asking for a higher caliber and higher class debate. When it came time to answer for his "look at that face" gaff towards Carly Fiorina, Trump could not articulate an excuse. (Fiorina, for her part, avoiding any petty back-shots and kept her head high, though she did show a touch of anger over Trump's attack against her career record and Christie's attempt to undermine their private sector experience.)
Winner: Huckabee is not a strong candidate outside of evangelical circles, but last night his impassioned defense of the rule of law over judicial activism won him strong accolades. On the arrest and incarceration of Kim Davis. Huckabee's argument that she shouldn't have been jailed. It was that we should respect her 1st Amendment Rights (free exercise of religion), and make provisions that balances her rights with the rights of gays to get married. This is a balanced approach that most people probably hadn't considered. Based on that and other elements of his performance, you can expect Huckabee to enjoy a brief bounce in the polls.
Loser: Bush brought a little more life to his performance, but mostly spent his energy on Trump (who he was strategically positioned next to). He made a few key, noticeable gaffs. When confronted by Trump on how he routinely speaks Spanish during pressers (which Trump tried to imply was pandering to Hispanic voters, especially by putting the challenge in the middle of an immigration topic), Bush responded that if he's asked a question in Spanish, he's going to show respect by responding in Spanish. That did not play well with elements of the crowd. Someone should tell Bush that this "press 1 for English" business is bad enough on the phone, but it won't endear him to his base. Later on, there was an exchange in which Bush defended his brother's legacy in Iraq, something that will most definately draw howls of derision from the left, but will also not gain him much love from the center. Even many on the right widely regard his prosecution of the Wars in Iraq and Afghanistan as plagued with errors, and would rather move past it. Finally game a portion of the debate where Bush's past marijuana use became the topic of discussion. Rand Paul managed to play Bush into a trap where Paul was able to make the case for his platform that America's drug laws are unjust by pointing out that Bush got special treatment due to his wealth and status whereas poor and minority offenders face incarceration and life long criminal records.
Loser: Christie simply came across as crass and authoritarian. In the few moments where he was able to steal the spotlight, he tried to minimize other candidates' record, but his response was simply to harken back to 9/11 and his yearly years as governor. Christie's more recent record include things he doesn't want to talk about, such as the Bridgegate Scandal or the high visibility hugfest with Obama.
Winner: Carson brought something to the debate none of the other candidates can manage - a sense of calm, even-tempered and thoughtfulness that usually doesn't play well. In his case, however, it seemed to create an air of focus around his responses. Even other candidates were reticent to interrupt Carson, and instead listen to his responses.
Loser: Everyone I haven't mentioned yet. Rubio spent most of his airtime looking sweaty, which unfortunately distracted from some excellent points he made. His youthful appearance leaves an impression of inexperience, which really isn't fair because he has good ideas. Rubio has the chance to channel the Kennedy charm, but his window to do so is shrinking fast. Kasich didn't help himself out of the "establishment" bucket with his "go along and get along" mannerisms. Kasich did make the case for being Secretary of State or possibly Secretary of Defense, however. Ted Cruz's makeup team should be beaten for once again making him look like a transgendered doll with greasy hair and pink lips. It was hard to pay attention to anything else when you're trying to figure out why he's in pink lipstick. (To be fair, his overall performance in this debate was weak and scripted.) Scott Walker likewise failed to impress, and the only memorable moment in the debate was when he clashed with trump.
Then there's the kiddie table: George Pataki, Rich Santorum, Bobby Jindal and Lindsey Graham. Santorum's performance was simply awful, and we can expect him to fall of the debate in coming days. Pataki didn't do much better. Frankly, if you're at the kiddie table, you should be thinking about your short term prospects in this race anyway. Lindsey Graham fared better with his humor and substance, but lacked passion for much of the debate. Then there's Bobby Jindal, who should be more popular, and his performance last night may give him the opportunity to be at the adult table in the next debate.
Winners: Outsiders - those people who have for years complained about professional washington politicians now have a real choice. Governers Pataki, Walker, Jindal and Christie have outside-the-beltway credentials. Tea Party Favorite Tex Cruz can actually speak to taking on the federal government and winning (as can Jindal). Walker can speak to his record as a union buster who works for the people. Taking it another step, you have Trump and Fiorina, with proven track records of success (and, admittedly, failure) in the private sector, as well as Ben Carson, the self made man.
Losers: Illegal immigrants, who will find no quarter among the GOP slate. Also, Hillary, who can count no friends among this crowd. Reince Priebus, who is seeing his grip on the reigns of power slipping as Jeb continues to tank.
Finally, I have to recognize CNN. CNN's choice of backdrop - the former Presidential Airplane, symbol of American Power visa vie the Presidency - was the perfect reminder of what we're ultimately getting to with these candidates. Siting the debate at the Reagan Library is the perfect throwback to where we were 37 years ago, which is nearly the same position we're in now: in conflict with an Islamic state, terrorism and the threat of Russian militarism as we discuss how best to replace a weak, ineffective and disastrous Presidency to restore American greatness. Moderators Jake Tapper, Hugh Hewitt and Dana Bash for not only asking great questions, and not only for keeping the candidates in line, but also not letting the candidates steal the show with their flagrant disregard for the rules of debate or each other.