A group of neutral observers almost unanimously agreed Thursday night that Donald Trump fared poorly in the second Republican presidential debate. The big winners in the eleven-candidate extravaganza, most felt, were Carly Fiorina and Chris Christie.
Most in the group also gave high marks to Marco Rubio, for his grasp of foreign policy.
Several, however, noted that Trump thus far has not been hurt in polls by bad performances and cautioned against “instant analysis” of the CNN-sponsored show-down at the Reagan Presidential Library.
My group included pundits, an historian, a pollster, and political consultants.
Almost all in the group cited moderator Jake Tapper’s questions about the tycoon hopeful’s cutting comment on her looks and Fiorina’s withering reply: “ I think women all over this country heard very clearly what Mr. Trump said."
“Carly resonated on woman’s issues and her interchange with Trump concerning his unsavory comments was a homerun,” GOP political consultant Ford O’Connell told me soon after the debate’s conclusion, “Her knowledge of foreign policy given that she is an outsider really turned some heads.”
Kathie Obradovich, top political writer for the Des Moines Register, agreed. “Carly Fiorina had the best Trump stomp, and also was a standout in the debate overall,” she said, “She let Trump hang himself with his own words to Jeb Bush in refusing to let him off the hook for criticizing her face. That was unscripted and shows why she would be deadly in a debate against the Democratic nominee.
Two others I spoke to went as far as to liken Fiorina to the British politician revered on the right almost as much as Reagan himself.
“She looks more Thatcheresque every day and her refusal to pander on the $10 bill [when she said it wasn’t important if a woman’s face was on the currency] was refreshing,” according to historian David Pietrusza, author of four books on presidential election years.
“Carly may be the Margaret Thatcher of this era,” said North Carolina GOP consultant Marc Rotterman, citing the businesswoman’s “demeanor and command of the facts” and predicting she will climb in the polls.”
G. Terry Madonna, Franklin and Marshall University (Pennsylvania) professor who is also considered the premier pollster in the Keystone State, agreed that “Fiorina came out best because of her bravura performance and she has the room to grow in the polls.”
But in hailing Fiorina and predicting major gains for her in forthcoming polls, many declined to say any wounds Trump suffered were severe or that his national following was abandoning him.
“Trump is the Teflon candidate,” Jon Fleischmann, editor of Flash Report on California politics, “No criticisms really stick to him because his support comes from his temperament — his aggressive, take-no-prisoners demeanor. Trump lost some ground tonight because some others are learning by example and being more aggressive.”
“Donald Trump took some body blows, but managed to avoid hitting the mat,” concluded the Register’s Obradovich, “Even when he wasn’t on the screen, he was being talked about and that’s always a win for The Donald.”
“It wasn’t one of his best performances,” agreed pollster Madonna, who quickly added that “questions about Trump were asked over and over again. They were overdone.”
Next to Fiorina, the candidates the group felt gained the most from the debate was Christie.
“ Chris Christie was a winner,” Detroit News columnist Henry Payne told me. “He brought a Trump-like physical presence and un-Trump-like command of the facts to the debate — a reminder of why Republicans fell in love with him the first time [when he was elected governor in 2009].”
“He made the American people the focus and not the candidates,” O’Connell agreed, “When he interrupted the Trump/Fiorina squabble on their personal successes — Christie was right to steer the focus to the struggling middle class. That said, given his low standing in the polls, I am not sure it will change his sagging fortunes. Christie is probably slapping himself for not running in 2012.”
Rubio drew considerable praise for his grasp of foreign policy issues, with the Register’s Obradovich saying one of Trump’s lowest points Thursday night was “during an exchange with Rubio, when he said he’d get up to speed on international issues before he sits in the Oval Office.”
Pietrusza said of the Florida candidate: “Rubio was as compelling on foreign affairs as [South Carolina Sen.] Lindsay Graham was a single-issue broken record on foreign affairs earlier in the evening. Bush and [Scott] Walker improved their respective games, at least in regard to style, though Bush's answers often seemed problematical. Christie was solid.”
John Gizzi is chief political columnist and White House correspondent for Newsmax.
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