Published on September 19th, 2015


Joseph Hunter : GOP Nomination Debate – From Best to Worst


For the first GOP presidential nomination debate, I tweeted my assessment of the candidates’ performance from strongest to weakest. I came to this conclusion by judging which candidates best helped themselves. Because each candidate faces different challenges, what each must do to raise his profile varies. My assessment of the best performers and my rationale follows, beginning with the strongest:

First Place: CEO Carly Fiorina

Fiorina left the undercard debates to join her rivals on the main stage, and prove herself substantive enough for serious consideration. Her performance was simply stellar.

In the weeks leading up to the debate, Fiorina argued persuasively that the metric CNN used to decide who would participate in the debate contained serious flaws–mainly, that the polls CNN relied upon to book candidates were so old that they did not take recent polling fluctuations into account. Therefore, Fiorina was originally barred from the debate because her poll numbers before the first debate were low. Fiorina won the undercard debate and earned serious consideration and support from Republicans looking to replace less impressive candidates who happened to poll better than their debate performances. In effect, Fiorina entered the debate as an underdog needing to prove herself worthy of leaving the stage with candidates like Senator Lindsey Graham and Governor George Pataki to compete with candidates more widely predicted to actually capture the nomination. She not only proved herself worthy of the debate, she launched herself into the small ring of candidates that Republicans could feel completely comfortable supporting in the General Election.

Fiorina spoke competently on foreign relations, bested only by Marco Rubio and only by a small margin. She spoke movingly on human life–her voice cracking as if she were holding back tears for the millions of unborn butchered and sold for scrap. She revealed a human aspect of her life that many Americans hadn’t known about her–that she and her husband lost a child to drug addiction. She effectively turned her painful story into a warning about liberalizing drug policy and the lies claiming that marijuana is a harmless drug. As usual, too, she effectively attacked the Democrat frontrunner, Hillary Clinton.

As if this weren’t enough, Fiorina masterfully dismantled Donald Trump, the bully who in days previous made scathing remarks about Fiorina’s physical appearance as a critique of her competency to be president. In one of her many electrifying debate moments, Fiorina answered Trump’s sexist remark simply and effectively:

“I think women all over this country heard very clearly what Mr. Trump said.”

Trump tried to smooth over the moment by complimenting Fiorina’s looks–a tone deaf move–and met Fiorina’s steely gaze. That steely gaze sent daggers through the screen. It would dice Hillary Clinton to shreds in a debate. It would sober world leaders unwilling to respect an American president because of her sex. It would haunt America’s enemies.
Carly Fiorina proved herself as “The Real Deal.” She may be America’s own “Iron Lady.” Her strong debate performance brings her closer to carrying the GOP banner.

1st Place: Senator Marco Rubio

Rubio entered the race with one of the strongest announcements of candidacy of any of the Republican contenders. In it, Rubio speaks passionately about his love of America, his duty to serve her, and his commitment to moving the country forward by tackling some of the trenchant political problems the nation faces.

Since his announcement, he has weathered scurrilous attacks from the New York Times about his wife’s speeding tickets and about his modest home. Besides these simplistic criticisms, though, Rubio has run a very effective and substantive campaign, avoiding gaffes and has maintaining an optimistic, energetic and thoughtful stance thus far. In an address before the Council of Foreign Relations, Rubio impressed attendees and pundits with his encyclopedic knowledge of foreign affairs, and with his clear-eyed prescriptions for future American foreign policy objectives.

Unfortunately, none of this has translated into bumper campaign funds. The Rubio campaign has been lost in the shuffle among strong contenders better connected to substantial donors. To make matters worse, Florida law precludes a candidate from appearing twice on a ballot, so Mr. Rubio forfeits his Senate seat by running for president. For Rubio, as for the other candidates, the nomination debates represent the greatest opportunity to attract positive attention, money and momentum.

In such a talented field of candidates, Rubio needed to do three things to win the debates: First, he needed to remain substantive, positive and passionate. Second, Rubio needed to stand out from field as offering something unique that will lead the party to success in the general election. Third, Rubio needed to appear less robotic–more human. To the third point, his smooth style puts Republicans, like me, at ease. I don’t worry that he will say something regretful. On the other hand, I have heard him criticized as being too smooth–too savvy–unrelatable.

By my assessment, Rubio won the debate by achieving each of these goals, however, to varying degrees of success. Rubio handled each question directed to him with impeccable poise and with optimism. He demonstrated his usual command of issues, and his refreshing willingness to answer questions directly, even before he’d pivot. When prompted to break with his political mentor, Governor Jeb Bush, Rubio wisely refused the bait. Bush, who offers much of what Rubio does, except in regards to age and executive experience, provided a less commanding performance (which I will discuss later), allowing Rubio the ability to stand apart from his most similar contender. Finally, Rubio’s wit, particularly his jab at the Democrat Party’s difficulty fielding a single good candidate, served to humanize him.

He easily achieved the first objective, but only moderately achieved the other two because the distraction of Donald Trump, and the plethora of candidates, muted Rubio’s chances to outshine some of his other competitors. Still, though, Rubio’s thoughtful campaign continued to impress on the debate stage. For the first debate, avoiding a meltdown can be as advantageous as achieving campaign goals. By my estimation, Mr. Rubio served his cause well.

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