Republicans awoke on Friday with a ghastly hangover brought on by far too many servings of Donald Trump at the party’s first primary debate in Cleveland on Thursday night, a poison the party seems unable to resist despite the menu including the less lethal options of Jeb Bush, Marco Rubio and John Kasich.
On the upside, the carnival that the debate, moderated by three anchors from Fox News, seemed occasionally to resemble certainly grabbed the nation’s attention. Preliminary numbers from the Nielsen organisation suggested that 16 per cent of all US households tuned in, easily setting a record. Four years ago, the highest-rated encounter garnered just 5 per cent of homes.
It was a split-screen affair. Viewers, as well as the 5,000-strong and often raucous audience inside the Quicken Loans Arena, could on the one hand indulge their fascination with Mr Trump and his quest to be the least-presidential presidential candidate of all time but also gauge who among the other nine rivals on the stage might appeal if/when his improbable bubble finally bursts.
On both counts, the night didn’t disappoint. Marco Rubio, the Florida senator, arguably stood out, looking past the Trump tempest and successfully parlaying his youth, at 44 years old. Mr Kasich, the current Ohio Governor and a late entrant to the race, also had a strong night, offering compassion for gay Americans even while saying he opposed gay marriage.
Presidential prowess? Republican candidates in televised debate
Presidential prowess? Republican candidates in televised debate
1/10 DONALD TRUMP - MOGUL AND PRESENTER
Most likely to say: “You other guys are just a bunch of stiffs. I LOVE Mexico. I will make America great again!”Least likely to say: “I invited Hillary Clinton to my wedding. Which wedding? I forget. Pass me a comb.”
2/10 JEB BUSH - FORMER FLORIDA GOVERNOR
Most likely to say: “I am the only one with a proven record as a conservative governor.” He will always add at least one sentence in Spanish.Least likely to say: “I know how to campaign. The last time I ran for office? 2003.”
3/10 SCOTT WALKER - GOVERNOR OF WISCONSIN
Most likely to say: “I took on the unions and beat them. I won two elections in a Democrat state and a recall election too.”Least likely to say: “Put a guy without a college degree in the White House. I won’t tell you why I dropped out.”
4/10 MIKE HUCKABEE - FORMER GOVERNOR OF ARKANSAS
Most likely to say: “I will fight to end gay marriage and reverse the Supreme Court on Obamacare.”Least likely to say: “You over there, Fox News guy. Keep my seat warm in the studio, because I’ll be back soon!”
AP Photo/John Locher, File
5/10 BEN CARSON - FORMER SURGEON
Most likely to say: “Barack Obama has been a disaster for America and I am the only to have called him out consistently.”Least likely to say: “I have never ever held elected office or even run for one. But I have a great life story!”
6/10 TED CRUZ - SENATOR FROM TEXAS
Most likely to say: “I will end big government and slash Washington to ribbons. Bye-bye gay marriage and Obamacare.”Least likely to say: “Hey, Mr Trump, if you want to play the ‘birther’ game again, I was born in Calgary, Canada!”
7/10 MARCO RUBIO - SENATOR FROM FLORIDA
Most likely to say: “President Obama is wrong on Iran and wrong on Cuba. I won’t chum about with tyrants.”Least likely to say: “I look like a puppy, but bring it on Putin. Yes, Jeb Bush was my mentor. Who cares?”
8/10 RAND PAUL - SENATOR FROM KENTUCKY
Most likely to say: “Everyone else on this stage is war crazy. I will not send your children to fight pointless wars abroad.”Least likely to say: “Time Magazine called me ‘the most interesting man in politics’ last year. Why y’all yawning?”
9/10 CHRIS CHRISTIE - GOVERNOR OF NEW JERSEY
Most likely to say: “I am a two-term governor in a Democrat state with a record of reaching across the aisle.” Least likely to say:“Any bridges in Cleveland I can foul up? Don’t ask me about New Jersey’s economy.”
10/10 JOHN KASICH - GOVERNOR OF OHIO
Most likely to say: “Welcome to my state, where jobs are growing and spending is down. You want to win Ohio, don’t you?”Least likely to say: “Don’t send me any foreign policy questions, because I’m more or less clueless. I might ramble. Again.”
What didn’t happen was command of the stage being taken by Mr Bush, the former Governor of Florida. Aside from looking uneasy when pushed to answer questions about America’s readiness for more of the Bush dynasty and his brother’s invasion of Iraq, he made no unforced errors. But given the expectations set when he entered the race, that was surely less than he and his supporters wanted of the night.
A defiant Mr Trump, meanwhile, dispelled any notion that he might come to Cleveland sporting a more sober tone or even hinting he had given some serious thought to issues such as immigration, foreign policy, abortion rights and the challenge of beating the prospective Democrat nominee, Hillary Clinton. Instead, he was caustic, bombastic, sarcastic and often incoherent. On Obamacare he at once praised Scotland for its “single-payer system” (presumably the NHS), but then said while it might have worked in the US “in a different age,” he’d now prefer a private health system.
The Fox moderators worked harder to trip up Mr Trump than any of the other candidates – possibly excepting Senator Rand Paul of Kentucky – challenging his shifting positions on healthcare and also abortion, questioning his business record and his four well-documented bankruptcies, as well as his past donations to Ms Clinton. Mostly he responded with bluster and outright disdain.
Mr Trump had many dangerous moments, not least when he was challenged by the moderator Megyn Kelly on his alleged record of calling women “fat pigs”, “dogs”, “slobs” and “disgusting animals”. He deflected her, saying he didn’t “have time for political correctness”, the very premise of his run.
Mr Trump also courted the anger of the party by refusing to pledge to support its eventual nominee if it’s not him nor to promise that in that event he wouldn’t relaunch himself as an independent candidate, a scenario that would probably hand the White House to the Democrats.
Whether his debate performance will have hurt his wide polling lead or helped it grow will become evident as polling numbers emerge in the coming days. He asserted he had no memory of ever having made the remarks about women. “I don’t recognise those words whatsoever,” he told ABC.
While on the stage he was all showman, in the aftermath of the debate Mr Trump seemed like a candidate on the defensive. After attracting a near stampede of cameras and reporters on entering the press area 40 minutes after the debate was over, Mr Trump declared himself the winner but then started to whine about his treatment by Fox.
“The questions to me I think were much tougher than they were to anybody else,” he averred, according to reporters who got close enough to hear. “Story of my life, I guess.”
The Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker, who has been polling second roughly even with Mr Bush, survived the audition intact, managing one joke criticising foreign adversaries accused of cyber attacks on the US and Ms Clinton for her email secretiveness all at once. “Probably the Russian and Chinese government know more about Hillary Clinton’s email server than do the members of the United States Congress.”
Without all the Trumperama, the most memorable moment would have been a near shouting match between New Jersey Governor Chris Christie, who has seen his once front-runner status fade, and Mr Rand, a libertarian, over the latter’s call for less warrantless surveillance of American phone data.
“I want to collect more records from terrorists but less records from innocent Americans,” Mr Paul declared. Mr Christie was dismissive, calling his statement “ridiculous”. “How are you supposed to know” who is a terrorist and who is not, he asked.
It was another gripping moment. It is not clear if either Mr Christie or Mr Paul will have drawn much benefit from the spat. Or if Mr Trump did from the entire show.
GOP Debate - the winners
Marco Rubio, Senator from Florida
Rubio showed poise and discipline and an ability to look past the Trump show.
John Kasich, Governor of Ohio
Made most of home-field advantage and showed himself a grown-up.
Scott Walker, Governor of Wisconsin
Showed he can handle tough questions; slammed Clinton and foreign foes in one joke.
Ben Carson, ex neurosurgeon
Won’t be the nominee, but stood out for his low-octane tone and remarks on race.
Aggressive questioning from all three moderators. They delivered a riveting debate.
and the losers
Jeb Bush, former Governor of Florida
Got in a slight tangle, again, on his brother’s Iraq invasion.
Ted Cruz, Senator from Texas
Strong words on Isis, but the darling of the far right failed to stand out otherwise.
Rand Paul, Senator from Kentucky
Won squabble with Christie about surveillance. But came over as a peevish misfit.
Chris Christie, Governor of New Jersey
Spent a lot of energy emphasising 9/11 tragedy, but needs new oomph.
Mike Huckabee, Former Governor of Arkansas
Hit evangelical notes, but seemed tired, a yesterday man.
and the frontrunner
Donald Trump, property magnate
Could pay for refusing to support the eventual nominee if it isn’t him and for insulting Rosie O’Donnell. But Trump has benefited in the past for saying controversial things.Reuse content