The Republican Debates: Who Won, Who Lost and Who Flopped

Did Donald dominate? How did Carly do? What about Jeb? 

The second round of Republican presidential debates was a whirlwind, as a seemingly limitless field of candidates engaged in a seemingly endless series of arguments. If CNN’s broadcast from Ronald Reagan’s library were a movie, it would have been The Never-Ending Story.

Despite the absence of Carly Fiorina (promoted to primetime), Rick Perry (departed from the race) and Jim Gilmore (he did not make the kiddie table), the undercard debate for lower-performing candidates was improved as a whole. No, nobody did as well as Fiorina last time but shrunk to a manageable four candidates there were some intelligent exchanges about important issues.

Lindsey Graham was the most improved. The South Carolina senator sleepwalked through his first debate, comically pairing apocalyptic descriptions of the world with an understated delivery that made it sound like he was discussing drying paint rather than imminent death at the hands of jihadists.

This time around, Graham got in some clever lines. Invoking Ronald Reagan’s bipartisan relationship with Tip O’Neill, he promised that when he was president people in Washington would drink more.

Although some of his arguments were a bit zany, Graham largely got the better of Rick Santorum in their back-and-forth on immigration. (I say this as someone whose immigration policy views are closer to Santorum’s than Graham’s.) And he at one point seemed to be setting the agenda on how Republicans should respond to the threat of ISIS. (I say this as someone whose foreign policy views couldn’t be further from Graham’s, period.)

Will any of it matter? Graham is polling near zero percent, so even a boomlet could be erased by the margin of error. After the many hours the primetime debate consumed, it’s possible that few Americans even remember the undercard event took place.

Bobby Jindal was energetic both in his defenses of conservative policies and his criticisms of Donald Trump, as expected. But the sitting governor of Louisiana wasn’t as dominant as one might have expected in a debate without Fiorina or any other stars. His sad degeneration from thoughtful policy wonk to desperate thrower of red meat, perhaps mirroring the steady deterioration of his governorship, will be one of the stories of the 2016 campaign.

Santorum and even George Pataki also had their moments, reminding us why they were once important political figures. But social conservatives seem to have moved on from the former Pennsylvania senator and the former New York governor seems more like a contemporary of Harold Stassen than George W. Bush. Neither did enough to cause anyone to revisit these judgements.

Fiorina was once again the single most impressive debater. It wasn’t as decisive as when she was a woman among boys in the previous undercard bout, but she is a crisp and effective communicator. She put Donald Trump in his place better than any of his rivals so far. Her discussion of her stepdaughter’s untimely death from a drug problem was moving. And Republicans were reminded of the positive optics of having the case against Planned Parenthood—and what an impassioned case Fiorina made—being pressed by an eloquent pro-life woman rather than the usual phalanx of middle-aged dudes.

Trump generally gave as good as he got and remains a powerful entertainer, but his second debate performance highlighted two continuing problems. One is that the way he talks about women, deftly tweaked by Jeb Bush as well as Fiorina, is bound to turn people (women, namely) off. Secondly, he isn’t getting better with policy details and whenever the debate became a grown-up discussion of such things he seemed to disappear from the stage.

As I’ve noted before, Trump’s performance is notoriously hard to grade because voters don’t seem to apply the usual rules to him. Musing about John McCain’s military record or Megyn Kelly’s menstruation would derail most candidates’ campaigns but it doesn’t seem to put a dent in The Donald’s support. I don’t expect to see an immediate drop-off in his support—his base consists of people too loyal to bolt over his not knowing Quds from Kurds or too tenuously involved in politics to sit through a three-hour debate—but as the prospect of him winning becomes more real, these things are going to become a problem.

You can tell Trump is making some effort to be less over the top in his criticism of other candidates (except for Rand Paul, whose attacks really seem to annoy him) and to behave a little bit more like a presidential candidate, at least insofar as his personality will allow him to make these accommodations. It remains to be seen how well this will work out.