It was the most-hyped presidential primary debate in years, but as the smoke clears from the GOP encounter in Cleveland, which candidates elevated themselves? And which contenders are left licking their wounds?
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Trump was Trump, showing all the flamboyance that has propelled him to the top of the Republican field. Despite tough questions from the moderators, which he complained about afterward, the businessman suffered no knockout blow. He certainly stirred controversy: His jab at Rosie O’Donnell, as well as his refusal to rule out a third-party run, might deepen skepticism about him among some voters. But the whole race continues to revolve around Trump — and that’s exactly what he wants.
Kasich made it into the debate by the skin of his teeth. But the Ohio governor delivered a strong performance in his home state with comments about reaching out to “people who live in the shadows,” effectively making the case that he could expand the GOP’s base of support. The fact that any half-good answer from him was met with loud applause from the local crowd didn’t hurt either.
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Rubio may not have had many zingers or standout moments, but the Florida senator did come across as polished, confident and composed. Rubio has slipped in polls, but before Trump's emergence he was among the top tier with Jeb Bush and Scott Walker. He did better — much better — than either of them on Thursday night.
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Christie has struggled in the shadows of “Bridgegate” and conservative dissatisfaction with some of his policies. But the New Jersey governor has always been a talented debater, and he showed that in Cleveland. His attack on Sen. Rand PaulRandal (Rand) Howard PaulWhite House debates vaccines for air travel Senate lawmakers let frustration show with Blinken Rand Paul: 'Hatred for Trump' blocking research into ivermectin as COVID-19 treatment MORE (Ky.) as a politician “blowing hot air” on national security was one of the most powerful verbal punches thrown all night.
The former Arkansas governor’s political skills are perennially underrated. He turned in a solid performance and spoke strongly to his core constituency of social conservatives, even if he didn’t set the night ablaze.
Expectations were high for the Texas senator, who was a champion debater during his time at Princeton University. Cruz committed no gaffes, but neither did he have any standout moments. Cruz is in the middle of the field in polling, and it’s tough to see how Thursday's debate might notably change his fortunes.
Bush delivered an unexpectedly uncertain performance, never really asserting himself and being overshadowed not just by Trump but also by candidates who lag far behind the former Florida governor in polling, including Christie and Kasich. The vulnerabilities that Bush skeptics identify seem as deep, if not deeper, after the debate. His problems among conservatives on issues such as immigration and education remain, as do worries that his deliberative, sometimes-ponderous style is ill-suited to the heat of a presidential race.
The Wisconsin governor faded into the background for much of the debate. That is especially damaging for him because it feeds an existing perception that he lacks the star power for a successful White House run. At worst, Walker’s insipid performance could prompt memories of Tim Pawlenty, another Midwestern governor who entered a presidential race with high hopes four years ago but floundered amid suggestions that he was too bland.
Paul had been sliding in the polls, and he at least made sure to grab his fair share of airtime Thursday night. Although he landed some verbal blows, the Kentucky senator was not the clear winner of any of the scraps he got into, and sometimes he came across as a little churlish. Trump’s dismissive response on one occasion — “You’re having a hard time tonight” — struck home.
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Carson began the night as one of the middle-ranking candidates, hoping for a moment that would vault him into the top tier. Instead, things went in the opposite direction for the retired neurosurgeon. He committed no gaffes but was often sidelined. His most moment memorable came when he was asked his second question of the night and responded, “I wasn’t sure I was going to get to talk again.”