CNN's GOP Debate: Winners and Losers


The Republican party pulled its Trump card last night, and her name is Carly.

Undoubtedly, the biggest winner of last night’s GOP presidential debate was Carly Fiorina. In a night full of well-placed personal jabs, concern over increasing Islamic terrorism, and appeals to the ghost of Ronald Reagan, the former HP executive claimed her spot at the big kid’s table and stole the spotlight from current frontrunner Donald Trump. Yet Fiorina was not the night’s only story; the debate revealed who’s winning, who’s losing and who’s ready for the big time.

Below, a breakdown of the candidates:

Jeb Bush - Bush, presumed to emerge as the runaway lead over the summer, had to regain all the territory he lost to the outsider triumvirate of Donald Trump, Carly Fiorina, and Ben Carson. While the former governor brought up good points regarding Planned Parenthood and worked in a solid line about the last Bush presidency (“my brother kept us safe,” he snapped to a dissenting Trump), his low energy and calm demeanor were ultimately overshadowed by Trump’s 3-ring circus and others’ fiery passion. Bonus points, however, for wanting Margaret Thatcher on the $10.

Ben Carson - Even if you disagree with Dr. Carson on every issue in the world, it is physically impossible to hate him: he’s kind, brilliant, gentle and earnestly believes in his values. Last night was Carson’s opportunity to prove himself the anti-Trump, audacious and politically incorrect without the buffoonery. But Carson struggled all night. He presented a weak aura and couldn’t make up his mind over immigration, tax reform or the war in Afghanistan. That being said, the former host of The Celebrity Apprentice is the Republican frontrunner for President of the United States, so Carson’s numbers could very well surge in the coming days.

Chris Christie - There’s a niche in the Republican market for establishment candidates, and up until tonight Jeb Bush had it cornered. Chris Christie had his moment but burned (closed?) too many bridges to make it last. Against all odds though, Christie resurrected himself just in time for the debate. A newfound assertiveness ignited the New Jersey governor’s performance, and he had perhaps the best one-liner of the night, interrupting a lengthy Trump-Fiorina exchange about business failures by telling them “You’re both successful people, congratulations” before moving onto policy issues. As the GOP establishment grows bored with Bush, Christie may snatch donors and votes.

Ted Cruz - Senator Cruz is a national collegiate debate champion, and it showed clearly during August’s debate. Last night, while Cruz delivered similarly rousing and perfectly-timed answers, they each sounded like stump speeches and gave Team Ted little new to grab on to. The questions, most of which were centered around Trump-bashing, also hurt Cruz. Since Cruz has allied himself with Trump in a bizarre attempt to ride the anti-establishment wave, moderator Jake Tapper directed fewer questions towards him the senator, creating entire spaces of time where Cruz was apparently out for a smoke break. Despite these factors, Cruz appeared smart and polished, poising himself to take over the Tea Party slot once the base tires of the Trump Show.

Carly Fiorina - Fiorina transcended the also-rans in August, and last night she transcended the front-runners. Wielding the impressive statistics, extensive foreign policy knowledge, and eloquent rhetoric we’ve come to expect, Fiorina proved that she’s more than Republican Hillary. Her chill-inducing indictment of Planned Parenthood and comprehensive Middle East strategy will surely earn her new fans, and her pitch-perfect remark about Steve Jobs’ phone call after losing her job at HP shut down cries of incompetence. Perhaps most impressive, though, was the businesswoman’s ability to meet Donald Trump at his level. While other candidates attempted to out-insult Trump, Fiorina made him look like the boorish buffoon he is by employing subtlety and grace. If her business record keeps Fiorina out of the White House, look for her to wear the VP nametag.

Mike Huckabee - Huckabee has been to this rodeo before, and it shows. Last night, as in August, Huckabee was well-prepared, confident, and sharp. He commands the middle-class evangelical base, and they were no doubt thrilled with his passionate and articulate defense of Kim Davis. His comparison of the Iran Deal being like the Magna Carta to President Obama and toilet paper to the Ayatollah was both funny and relevant. But like Cruz, there was nothing fresh in Huckabee’s performance -- he’s steady and will continue to poll well, but will likely not garner a nomination come next summer.

John Kasich - If Ted Cruz took a smoke break, Kasich spent the debate phoning in arguments. The Ohio governor wanted to sell himself as a relatable moderate, but, in a debate where candidates were allowed to interrupt each other, went three 30-minute intervals without speaking at all. He tried to gain support with a canned answer about Planned Parenthood but shot himself in the foot when he remarked that it’s not worth shutting the government down over. The lack of applause for all his answers tells us all that we need to -- as the field thins itself out, don’t look for Kasich to rise above.

Rand Paul - Paul came alive when arguing for the legalization of marijuana and demonstrated a mastery of economics during a discussion on the US having dinner with China. But aside from these moments (both of which will only strengthen his camp’s enthusiasm), Paul looked like the junior high boy Trump claimed he was. Without the Christie squabbles from the August debate, Paul appeared lost and disgruntled. The Paul family has a dedicated base though, and it’s not going anywhere anytime soon.

Marco Rubio - Aside from Fiorina, Rubio was the night’s biggest winner. He hasn’t been polling high lately, but he also focuses on policy, which normally doesn’t become important until late in the game. Last night, both his policy focus and prowess as an orator were on full display. Like Fiorina, Rubio rattled off names and ideas all night, refusing to play the “bash Trump” game. As in August, he appeared presidential, charismatic, and refreshing, especially with a poignant story about his Cuban roots. Rubio is running a marathon, not a sprint. His strategy may not pay off now, but he’s here for the long term.

Donald Trump - Trump was Trump. He was brash, pretentious, and drew heavy applause; if you liked him before, you like him now, and if you didn’t like him, before you probably hate him more now. Rival candidates criticized his inconsistent views, business failures, and selfish attitude, and the businessman responded with biting remarks (although let it be known that he now thinks Carly Fiorina has a beautiful face) and talked about The Wall. Interestingly, Trump self-combusted in the last hour of the debate, rambling incoherently about how North Korea has nukes and continuing to declare that nobody talked about immigration at all before he came around. Naturally, by the end of the debate, Trump already held a large majority in the polls and will likely continue his lead. He showed cracks last night though, and how long he can cover them up is anyone’s guess.

Scott Walker - Originally cast as a conservative foil to Jeb Bush’s establishment appeal, Walker has similarly lost ground since a lackluster performance in the first debate. After the most recent polls placed him at 2% support, what the Wisconsin governor needed last night was a breakthrough; what he delivered was a eulogy for his campaign. On the rare occasion that Walker stole an opportunity to talk, he endeavored kitchen sink answers, reiterating his entire platform without actually saying something new. A shame too, because Walker has one of the best records of the whole field.

Although this presidential field is more crowded than a Trader Joe’s on Sunday, there was still an ever-shrinking contingent of secondary contenders who debated beforehand. And really, there’s little to say -- listening to the second-tier discuss their actions as president felt like listening to the producers of Hotel Transylvania 2 prepare their acceptance speech for the Oscars. For what it’s worth, Lindsey Graham would “drink more” as president, Bobby Jindal is glad police officers were “careful” in confiscating a 14-year-old muslim boy’s clock, Rick Santorum thinks Kim Davis is comparable to Columbine victims, George Pataki was still the governor of New York during 9/11, and Rick Perry is probably sipping a martini somewhere warm.

With two GOP debates under our belt, the most pressing question now is whether or not Martin O’Malley will bring his guitar to the first Democratic debate next month. Until then, we can enjoy the Republican family squabbles and prepare to feel the Bern.

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