You have to the give CNN credit; though they did not host the first GOP presidential debate, they could not have had a better venue and backdrop for the second skirmish between the Republican White House aspirants.
The Ronald Reagan Presidential Library and Museum in Simi Valley has the Gipper’s Air Force One, which provided a magnificent backdrop and the great man himself is buried a few hundred yards away.
How They Did
Carly Fiorina: The network cooked up a way to tag a “plus one” to the ten participants from the previous “main card” debate so former HP executive could join the boys on the big stage. To Carly’s credit, she made the most of her opportunity. Considered the winner of the “Children’s Table Debate” in Cleveland, Fiorina was poised, sharp and demonstrated an ability to hang in a verbal battle with the GOP’s leading candidate and street fighter. Carly won’t need to pressure the media and the RNC to allow her to take part in future debates after her performance at the Reagan Library, where she was the clear winner.
Marco Rubio: Arguably Rubio did no worse than second in the first debate and fared the same in Simi Valley. The Florida senator’s comments were warmly received by the audience and deftly handled Trump’s snipe about his attendance record in the US Senate. Had Rubio pivoted it into a more direct attack on the current Republican congressional leadership, he would have won the debate hands down, though he settled for merely implying that he was dissatisfied with those in charge. Of the eleven candidates, Rubio remains the most Reaganesque.
Ted Cruz: Wardrobe changes were greatly improved from Cleveland, where he looked like an undertaker. Had more of a stage presence this time and masterfully handled the John Roberts hypocrisy blast by Jeb Bush. Cruz’s debate style is like a conservative talking points juke box where he tries to answer questions by reciting in a rehearsed mini speech. Debate two was an improvement but he needs to do better in what is supposed to be his forte.
Chris Christie: Exiled to the phantom zone in the first debate, reminding folks he was there only briefly when he tied up with Rand Paul, the New Jersey governor thrust himself into the conversation as he continues to frame his New Jersey governorship as a profile in conservatism. His odd posture where he learned on the podium was noticeable. This debate was not a game charger, though it was not a meltdown either.
Scott Walker: Trump mocked the Wisconsin governor’s dissolving presidential candidacy and Walker seemed to have shaken off the cobwebs from the previous encounter. The crowded field has been a hindrance to the Wisconsin governor and he seems to be targeted by Trump as a threat in Iowa, a state the billionaire cannot afford to lose. Like Cruz, Walker managed to increase his stage presence relative to the last debate yet like Christie won’t get much a boost in the polls from it.
Donald Trump: Though The Donald came out swinging from the outset, questioning why Rand Paul was on the stage (an odd charge since Paul has a fairly significant constituency that is underrepresented in polls) but then toned down his aggressiveness. Maybe it was the jetlag or maybe Trump is shifting gears as he attempts to transition from being a phenomenon to a potential president. Mugged a lot with his family in the post-debate camera shots. The other big difference from the previous debate: Trump appeared better prepared.
Dr. Ben Carson: The man who was on Trump’s heels in the polls did not have a good night in the long term. Though he maintained his even calm tone and continued to come off as a personally agreeable candidate, Carson will come to regret his stated opposition to military intervention in Afghanistan post-September 11th. This could have been his “global test” moment.
Rand Paul: The Kentucky US Senator started off clumsy but then found his niche in the states ‘ rights conversation. While Paul is the most organized candidate in terms of grassroots nationally, he needs to find a way to establish some traction in the polls.
Jeb Bush: Aside from making his mother furious with his past marijuana use admission, Bush did not have a terrible night. And though Jeb managed to justify the utilization of advisors from his father and his brother’s administrations on his campaign team, that did not necessarily mean that the voters are enthusiastic about the prospect of George W. Bush having a third term, via a Jeb administration. The former Florida governor also seemed awkwardly angry towards Trump over comments he had made about Bush’s Mexican-born wife, at times appearing as if he was going to get in the real estate developer’s grill about how he needed to apologize for making disrespectful comments and then letting the whole matter drop. It was Kitty Dukakis-esque. Jeb also got testy over criticism of his brother’s administration, leading one to wonder how is he going to handle it when the various candidate Super PACs begin to carpet-bomb him closer to the Iowa caucuses.
Mike Huckabee: Did well in the first debate but struggled to become a part of the conversation in the sequel. Perhaps the cagiest of the candidates running, Huck seemed off balance and rush through his talking points. Tripled down on his evangelical constituency by pouncing on social issues. Done enough to keep Bobby Jindal and Rick Santorum exiled to the children’s table debate but not enough to leap over Carson and Cruz.
John Kasich: The Ohio governor benefited by playing at home and with a favorable crowd in Cleveland and started off strong by trying to be the “adult in the room” but failed to follow that up. Two most memorable Kasich moments of the night was his bragging that he had ridden on the iconic plane in the background and he was the one candidate who debate moderator Jake Tapper was able to keep from interrupting. Kasich seemed better suited for the matinee debate than the main feature.
Honorable Mention- Bobby Jindal: Though he was not present for the main event, the governor’s attacks on Trump did make it into the questioning at the start of the debate.