Seventeen candidates. Two debates. One night. Thursday saw the first Republican primary debate hosted by Fox News Channel and Facebook at Quicken Loans Arena in Cleveland, Ohio. Fox had changed the admittance rules just days before. The 9 p.m. main event still featured the top 10 as determined by an average of five national polls two days prior. The 5 p.m. debate scrapped the requirement for at least 1 percent support.
If Fox meant for the mostly empty arena to embarrass the candidates relegated to the opener, job well done. During the shots featuring moderators Bill Hemmer and Martha MacCallum, I swear I saw one of the few spectators sleeping.
Undaunted, former Hewlett-Packard CEO Carly Fiorina made an impression early on. It wasn’t hard to stand out in this crowd, but she maintained her dominance. (I honestly forgot former New York Gov. George Pataki was running, and former Virginia Gov. Jim Gilmore had entered the race just days before.)
As the only woman, making it to even to this level required a level of poise a man like, say, newly bespectacled former Texas Gov. Rick Perry never could muster. Perry struggled to form words all night, at one point uttering, “Ronald Raven.” He should never be allowed to speak into a microphone again.
“Never answer the question that is asked of you,” said former Defense Secretary Robert McNamara in Errol Morris’ 2003 documentary “The Fog of War.” “Answer the question that you wish had been asked of you.”
These candidates seemed to take this time-honored political advice to heart. Former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum responded to previous primary wins by talking about Iran. South Carolina Sen. Lindsey Graham pivoted to Afghanistan when asked about Planned Parenthood. When queried about low poll numbers, Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal mentioned Israel.
Losers: Everyone else, especially Perry.
Highlight: When asked to describe Hillary in two words, here's how many each used: Pataki, eight or nine*; Graham, 11; Jindal, three or four*; Gilmore, seven; Fiorina, four; Santorum, two or three*; and Perry, eight. (* = if you count “and.”)
Finally loud and full, the crowd lived up to the sports arena setting, lending these already popular candidates credibility the openers lacked. Center stage was Donald Trump. Trump is not a politician, but an entertainer; a vile stain on humanity who owned the stage all night. Not that moderators Bret Baier, Megyn Kelly and Chris Wallace didn’t ask him some surprisingly pointed questions.
Only Trump wouldn’t pledge to support the nominee. “If I am the nominee, I won’t run as an independent,” he said. Without Trump, Texas Sen. Ted Cruz would be seen as the outlier, and Former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee would have had no trouble with his “illegals, prostitutes, pimps, drug dealers” and “kill people and break things” lines being remembered.
Kentucky Sen. Rand Paul attacked Trump first, but was handily vanquished. “You’re having a hard time tonight,” Trump said. Paul was more successful in a tussle with New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie who, like Gilmore and Pataki in the previous debate, invoked 9/11 ad nauseam.
Ohio Gov. John Kasich benefited from the home crowd and being (along with Dr. Ben Carson) capable of empathy. Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker was flatly unremarkable. Florida Sen. Marco Rubio shone by not being former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush. “I did it as Florida,” Bush said in his closing remarks.
Winners: Trump, Kasich, Rubio, Paul, Carson.
Losers: Bush, Walker, Christie, Huckabee, Cruz.
Highlights: Trump. Also, this petty exchange: "I don’t trust President Obama with our records. I know you gave him a big hug. And if you want to give him a big hug again you go right ahead," said Paul. "Sen. Paul, you know, the hugs that I remember were the hugs that I gave to the people who lost their people on Sept. 11. Those are the hugs that I remember," said Christie.