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GOP pundits pick Rubio, Fox as debate winners

 

The raucous prime-time GOP debate on Thursday included sharp exchanges between a number of candidates seeking to break out from the crowded field.

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GOP front-runner Donald TrumpDonald TrumpRepublican wins La. Senate runoff in final 2016 race Corker calls Tillerson 'very impressive' The other face of immigration from Mexico is African MORE took several tough questions, while New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie and Sen. Rand PaulRand PaulSunday shows preview: Trump sits down with Fox Trump stumps for Louisiana Senate candidate ahead of runoff Giuliani won't serve in Trump administration MORE (Ky.) had a notable tussle.

The Hill asked seven GOP pundits to weigh in with their winners.

Here are their thoughts:

Bradley A. Blakeman

Winner: Ohio Gov. John Kasich

Why: He showed himself as a leader, not only of a party, but of a nation whose best days are ahead. He said the key to prosperity rests in sound economic policies. He showed that he has the experience in balancing budgets — federally, as chairman of the Budget Committee in the House, and as a governor. He did not take the bait to go after Trump when given the opportunity and instead acknowledged that Trump touched a nerve in America about immigration and gridlock. Kasich also turned a negative question on expanding Medicaid into a positive by showing himself to be a compassionate conservative. On gay marriage, he showed acceptance without compromising his own personal beliefs. He had vision, experience, was affable, genuine and showed leadership.

Blakeman is a professor of Public Policy, Politics and International Affairs at Georgetown University and was formerly a senior adviser to President George W. Bush.

Ron Bonjean

Winner: Sen. Marco RubioMarco RubioSenate clears water bill with Flint aid, drought relief What Trump's Cabinet picks reveal House passes water bill with Flint aid, drought relief MORE (Fla.)

Why: Rubio won the night by showing a commanding stage presence, great enthusiasm and deep policy knowledge. He even outmaneuvered Trump on immigration reform without having to confront him. Since he squeaked into the No. 10 slot, Kasich performed well and will likely rise within the pack. Christie also impressed, especially against Rand Paul. It may not matter to mad-as-hell voters, but Trump hurt himself by confusing voters because he refused to pledge to remain a Republican if he didn't win the nomination. Sen. Ted CruzTed CruzSenate passes dozens of bills on way out of town Senate passes stopgap funding bill, averting shutdown Senate advances funding measure, avoiding shutdown MORE (Texas) may pick up more conservative voters because of Trump's performance. Former Gov. Jeb Bush (Fla.) and Gov. Scott Walker (Wis.) didn't make any mistakes, but both need to really impress next time.

Bonjean is a Republican strategist and partner with Rokk Solutions.

Former Rep. John LeBoutillier (R-N.Y.)

Winner: The Republican Party and the Republican brand

Why: This was an outstanding performance by all 10 candidates. The message of unity, strength, economic growth and restoration is one that will win in 2016.

What Republican could not be proud of the performance tonight?

Politically, each candidate helped himself; none lost support tonight.

Trump was vintage Trump; he didn't lose his supporters tonight. But the other nine — by finally getting some national TV time and thus breathing some much-needed political oxygen in the "Age of Trump Media Dominance" — have gained a bit on Trump's lead.

Unfortunately, the civil tone of tonight's debate will not last. The candidates' well-funded super-PACs are going to savage each other and by next spring, the GOP race will be a total circular firing squad and a demolition derby.

LeBoutillier is a former Republican congressman from New York and is the co-host of "Political Insiders" on Fox News Channel.

Matt Mackowiak

Winner: Rubio

Why: The central question entering the debate tonight was whether Trump could appear presidential. The clear answer is no. While there was no meltdown, he offered no new ideas, little substance and appeared diminished standing next to serious candidates.

Rubio had the most impressive performance. Bush was calm and statesmanlike, smartly pivoting to school choice and his pro-life credentials. Walker was steady and confirmed his first-tier status.

Dr. Ben Carson, former Gov. Mike Huckabee (Ark.) and Rand Paul were invisible. Cruz was, too.

Christie was fairly strong. Kasich showed his heart and got a boost from the home-field advantage.

Ultimately, there were no major gaffes and there was no big loser.

Former Hewlett-Packard CEO Carly Fiorina will get a boost from clearly winning the earlier debate and former Gov. Rick Perry (Texas) erased the memory of the "oops" moment and will benefit from a solid performance.

This is a fluid race that is wide open.

Mackowiak is a syndicated columnist; an Austin, Texas-based Republican consultant; and a former Capitol Hill and George W. Bush administration aide.

Rick Manning

Winner: Fiorina

Why: Every Republican presidential candidate on the stage should send Trump a thank-you note for drawing eyeballs to a debate 15 months prior to the general election.

However, the candidate who will likely benefit most wasn't on the stage. The big winner made her case before a much smaller audience earlier in the day — Fiorina, who created a buzz about her performance in the earlier debate without people hearing any negatively toned questions that exposed her vulnerability.

While none of the candidates on the prime-time stage fumbled egregiously, Walker suffered due to his performance early in the debate where his seemingly passionless talking-point-oriented answers made him virtually invisible for much of the debate. Trump, as the front-runner, was hurt by the format, which favored prosecutors and the politically polished.

In the end, the big winner was the GOP, which demonstrated an incredible depth of quality candidates — unlike the Democrats, who can't even manage to schedule a single debate.

Manning is a longtime conservative political professional who remains active in his local Republican Party.

Ford O'Connell

Winner: Rubio

Why: Without question, this was one of the most gripping presidential debates in years. Trump was bombastic and entertaining right from the start, and skirted questions like a lifelong politician in a tight, controlled setting; Trump's biggest error was not accepting the pledge to not run as a third-party candidate. Bush and Walker played it safe tonight and largely underwhelmed. Rubio was the clear winner tonight. Whether Rubio leads the headlines tomorrow and gets a bump in the polls is open for debate. Huckabee, Christie and Kasich also shined and will get more looks, but there is one person all 10 on the stage should be looking over their shoulders at in the next debate: Fiorina.

O'Connell is the chairman of CivicForumPAC, worked on the 2008 McCain-Palin presidential campaign and is author of the book Hail Mary: The 10-Step Playbook for Republican Recovery.

Bill Whalen

Winner: Roger Ailes

Why: Fox News's head honcho not only landed the first big debate of 2016 but, thanks to his marketing smarts and the Trump sideshow (a wise move to antagonize Megyn Kelly?), turned it into a globally followed affair.

Fox haters bemoan the network's control over this political event. What they miss: Fox News Channel is more than a rite of passage and safe harbor for GOP presidential hopefuls. With its attention to immigration, national security and cultural mores, it's video vox populi for the conservative grass roots.

Well done, Mr. Ailes. I wish all primary debates were as well-produced.

Whalen is a Hoover Institution research fellow.