Tuesday night’s Republican presidential debate was relatively free of the rough and tumble personal attacks of the previous ones but did illuminate some of the deep divides among Republicans over immigration, the economy and national security.
In the end, the debate will do little to shake up the field but it could give change the narrative about one-time front-runner former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush from nervous donors concerned about a campaign on the ropes to one of fighting back.
Most rated Bush’s performance as improved from his previous ones but the bar was low after three lackluster performances.
“He's clearly trying and did better,” veteran Republican ad maker Bob Kish said. “He gets a temporary stay of execution for now.”
GOP strategist Brian Walsh, who has done communications for Republican House and Senate campaigns, said it was “hard to say” if Tuesday’s performance would turn down the deathwatch around his campaign.
“There's no question Governor Bush was much improved but he still needs a breakout moment and too often he found himself overshadowed in the debate,” he said. “It was likely enough to satisfy many donors, but he needs to be more aggressive moving forward because fair or unfair time is not in his side in today's media environment.”
Bush did assert himself more Tuesday, tag-teaming with Ohio Gov. John Kasich to apply some reality-checking to Donald Trump’s immigration plan, which propelled the real estate mogul to the top of polls over the summer.
Bush said Trump’s plan was not only bad policy, but also bad politics for Republicans who know that they can’t alienate the Latino vote if they want any chance to win back the White House.
"Even having this conversation sends a powerful signal. They're doing high-fives in the Clinton campaign right now when they hear this. That's the problem with this,” Bush said.
Kasich continued his attempts to poke holes in the feasibility of Trump’s plan, which is to build a wall along the U.S. border with Mexico and deport the estimated 11.5 million immigrants in the country illegally.
“Think about the families; think about the children,” Kasich said. “Come on, folks, we know you can’t pick them up and ship them across the border. It’s a silly argument. It’s not an adult argument.”
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That might have been the high water mark for Kasich in the debate. Fighting for attention and support against establishment candidates such as Bush and Florida Sen. Marco Rubio and sounding like he was addressing a general election audience than a Republican debate one, Kasich was criticized for being overly assertive.
“John Kasich came across as rude and irritated,” Kish said, “but I did enjoy his trip around the globe ... like being on the Disney ride 'It's a Small World After All.'"
Ron Bonjean, a longtime communicator who has worked for leadership in both the House and Senate, said Kasich didn't help himself with Republican voters.
“ John Kasich did not come across well by continually interrupting others and demanding more time,” the veteran strategist said. “His position on immigration is quite bold and makes sense for general election voters but may not go over well with Republican primary voters. He also really turned off Republicans inside the room over his answers regarding Dodd Frank.”
Kasich thinks it's his show, apparently. It isn't. #GOPDebate— Stuart Rothenberg (@StuPolitics) November 11, 2015
Indeed, Kasich drew boos from the audience during an exchange with Texas Sen. Ted Cruz over bailing out big banks with Kasich arguing that he would wouldn’t let investors go down with the banks.
“So you would bail them out?” Cruz asked.
"No,” Kasich answered. “As an executive, I would figure out how to separate those people who can afford it versus those people, or the hard-working folks who put those money in those institutions."
Cruz, for his part, again held his own in the forum, overcoming a stumble when he listed four instead of the five departments he would eliminate from the federal government (he listed the Department of Commerce twice) while continuing to master the debate stage.
“His strategy is to both inspire and lecture us at the same time,” Kish said. “I bet he never lost at debate club in college.”
Both Walsh and Bonjean said Cruz continues to position himself well to pick up supporters from Trump, should his campaign collapse.
“Cruz continued his stalking horse strategy of sitting back, picking his spots and waiting for Trump to eventually step aside,” Walsh said.
Rubio, another polished debater, has gained momentum coming out of the much-maligned CNBC debate in October and didn’t do anything to slow that down, the strategists concurred.
“I think his strategy is to slowly build momentum going into Iowa and not peak too early,” Kish said. “I think it's a smart strategy.”
Rubio uses "potential" and "promise" often. It's part of his appeal. — Stuart Rothenberg (@StuPolitics) November 11, 2015
Rubio also avoided the immigration issue, on which he is vulnerable after being part of the Gang of Eight in the Senate which wrote a comprehensive immigration reform bill that included a pathway to citizenship unpopular with Republican voters before he eventually backed away from it.
Rubio’s charges on a Florida Republican Party American Express account, which has been much scrutinized in the media and brought up again on the day before the debate by Trump, also didn’t come up.
Another story that has dominated election coverage in the media was front-runner Ben Carson’s personal story, which has been challenged over the last couple weeks as he rose to the top of polls. Asked by Fox Business Network moderator Neil Cavuto if that narrative is hurting his campaign, Carson answered with humor, saying, “Well, first of all, thank you for not asking me what I said in the 10th grade. I appreciate that.”
“The fact of the matter is, we should vet all candidates. I have no problem with being vetted. What I do have a problem with is being lied about and then putting that out there as true,” he said after laughter and applause died down.
Interesting no one has attacked each other yet after 30 mins. @RealBenCarson just emerged unscathed on his reaction to media scrutiny.— Ron Bonjean (@RonBonjean) November 11, 2015
Carson might never win a debate, but his low-key performances have allowed him to maintain his standing in polls and avoid the kind of attacks on the debate stage that most of his rivals have endured.
“Ben Carson emerged unscathed from the media scrutiny over his biography and comments,” Bonjean said. “The other candidates like Trump left him alone because they learned they lose support from voters.”
Trump, for his part, was relatively lackluster, and was on his heels for the better part of the debate. Most of his rivals have been reluctant to take him on one-on-one in previous debates but that wasn’t the case on Tuesday.
“It is clear that candidates such as Kasich, [Carly] Fiorina, and [Rand] Paul see that Donald Trump is peaking and are trying to peel off voters from him,” Bonjean said. Bush challenged Trump’s assertion that the U.S. should let Russia do the heavy lifting in Syria and concentrate instead on domestic issues like debt and a crumbling infrastructure, and said Trump treated national security “like a board game.”
“We have to accept that we can’t continue to be the policeman of the world,” Trump said.
“He’s absolutely wrong on this,” Bush retorted. “We are not going to be the world’s policeman but we sure as heck ought be the world’s leader. This is a huge difference.”
Fiorina had one of the debate’s best moments when she, too, challenged Trump on his willingness to not confront Russian leader Vladimir Putin on Russia’s military action in Ukraine and its involvement in Syria, saying he and the Russian leader had been “stablemates” in separate interviews on “60 Minutes,” saying they had met in the green room, though the interviews were taped separately.
“One of the reasons I’ve said I would not be talking to Vladimir Putin right now, although I have met him as well, not in a green room for a show, but in a private meeting,” she said.
The former Hewlett-Packard CEO said she would not be speaking to Putin for a long time because "we are speaking to him in a position of weakness brought on by this administration."
While Fiorina’s assertion about her meeting with Putin at an APAC summit in Beijing was later challenged , Kish called it the best smackdown of Trump, who later complained about Fiorina “interrupting everyone,” which also drew boos.
“Carly basically called Trump P.T. Barnum,” Kish said.
Paul, the other senator on the stage, had his best debate performance so far, perhaps tamping down criticism of his languishing campaign. He scored points with the audience on his opposition to a no-fly zone over Syria, which he pointed out was supported by his rivals as well as Clinton, and said instead the U.S. should engage with Putin rather than risk a war with Syria.
Paul questioned some of his rivals’ conservatism, criticizing Rubio’s child tax credit and calls for increased defense spending, saying, “You can't be conservative if you're going to keep promoting programs you're not going to pay for."
And he finally landed a counter-punch on Trump, who had belittled him in debates and on Twitter, when, after Trump had bashed China in a discussion of the Trans-Pacific Partnership, Paul pointed out to moderator The Wall Street Journal Editor Gerard Baker, “Hey, Gerard, you know, we might want to point out China is not part of this deal.”
Anyway else not surprised that Trump doesn't know the details of major trade deals? Nice comeback by Rand. — Brian Walsh (@brianjameswalsh) November 11, 2015
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