CNN hosted two Republican debates at the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library last night. Like the Fox News debate held in Cleveland last month this was meant to be considered one debate broken up into two rounds, but when you have a completely different set of people on the stage for each round it effectively becomes two debates.
I guess you could say that Bobby Jindal won the 6 PM debate, but the whole thing felt like a waste of time to me. Jindal tried to strike a balance between speaking to the base much in the same way that Ted Cruz does while still being willing to denounce Donald Trump, Rick Santorum's foreign policy chops were overshadowed by his sanctimony and his naked appeals to economically illiterate Trump voters, Lindsey Graham stuck to his usual shtick of trying to be some strange General Patton/Andy Griffith hybrid, and George Pataki was just sort of there (I honestly can't remember a single word he said).
Every candidate in the 8 PM debate had at least one good moment but Carly Fiorina was the candidate that really stood out as the winner. She's someone who not only does her homework but is very good at thinking on her feet, and it showed last night. No matter what question was asked she always seemed to find a way to turn her answer into a blistering attack, but she never once resorted to the sort of third-grade insults used by Trump.
Marco Rubio did well for himself too, but not quite as well as he did in the Fox debate, I think. He knows his stuff, and he's very good at explaining things without it sounding like he's giving a speech, but last night he just didn't get in the kind of broadsides that we saw from Fiorina. (I also could've done without his lame water bottle joke, but that's a minor complaint.)
I don't know if he'll be punished in the polls for it or not but Donald Trump's performance in last night's debate was pretty terrible, even for him. Sure, he did have a few moments where he seemed almost human, but mostly he stuck to non sequiturs and random insults, or blatant lies about his previous random insults; and for some strange reason he still seems utterly determined to remain as uninformed on matters of foreign policy as he possibly can.
For the most part Ben Carson seemed much more comfortable giving more specific answers in this debate than he did at the Fox debate, but he still seems out of his depth on foreign policy and at times even dangerously naive. At one point he seemed to suggest that President Bush should have used "the bully pulpit" to do some unspecified thing instead of invading Afghanistan after 9/11--not the kind of answer serious people want to hear from a potential Commander in Chief.
Chris Christie came off as a serious guy for most of the night, as he did in the Fox debate, but at other times he seemed like he was trying too hard to act like he was the only adult in the room and I found it a bit off-putting. If you want to be seen as Mr. Serious you can't be overbearing about it. I do have a lot of problems with him as a candidate but I haven't written him off yet.
We know who John Kasich is now so he no longer has the benefit of low expectation, and he no longer has his adoring fans from Ohio in the audience to cheer him on. He pretty much fell flat last night. I find Kasich a bit tedious at this point, frankly. He kept interrupting everyone else on the stage but never seemed to have much of anything to say. Also, his explanation of why he wants to keep the Iran deal in place was so dumb that it made my head hurt.
I like that Scott Walker pushed back a little bit on how all the questions were about Trump, but ultimately it didn't change anything. The dumb questions just kept coming and coming. I like Walker, but his campaign has been an absolute mess so far and he's just too subdued in these debates.
Rand Paul was much less aggressive here than he was in the Fox debate; he had a chance to get into a big fight with Trump while defending Carly Fiorina but he gave up and just rolled his eyes instead. Other than that minor skirmish, the only things I can even remember hearing from him last night was more of the usual anti-war stuff and pro-marijuana stuff.
Ted Cruz still sounds way too rehearsed to me, and way too focused on speaking only to the base. I don't know why he has a reputation for being such a great debater. And of course he didn't say one bad word about Trump, as usual. He seems to think that if he keeps playing footsie with Trump that he'll just somehow magically end up with all of Trump's supporters.
Jeb Bush was just as uninspiring in this debate as he was in the Fox debate. Well, he did have one good line where he defended his brother by saying that he kept us safe, but that was it. I just don't think Jeb has it in him to show us that he's anything other than Mr. Establishment. He doesn't even really have the perception that he's the default not-Trump guy going for him anymore.
Huckabee was Huckabee. He had a few good lines but mostly he was just there taking up space. I still can't believe he gave up a television show for this.