GOP Debate #2 wrap-up: Fiorina shines, Cruz disappears, and awkward Bush moments

Not that Greater Texas needs yet another hot take on last night’s GOP Presidential debate hosted by CNN, but what the hell – here’s mine anyway.

As expected and is natural in such situations, CNN’s Jake Tapper did his very best to pit as many of the candidates against frontrunner Donald Trump as possible, calling on Trump to respond to charges other candidates had made against him on the campaign trail, and calling on others to respond to Trump’s insults.

This made Carly Fiorina shine, made for an awkward night for Jeb Bush, and made Ted Cruz a non-entity.

Last night Fiorina became the first challenger to go head-to-head with Trump, twice, and win resoundingly both times. In each case her comments furthered her own message, while leaving Trump red-faced with embarrassment. Going into last night’s event, she had been one of the bigger question marks on stage, having participated only in the kiddie table debate in the FOX News round last month, and shined there. But it’s one thing to attack Trump when Trump’s not even there; quite another to go toe-to-toe with him. But she fought her way to the main event, and she absolutely delivered. Expect a polling bump out of her corner in the coming week or so.

Meanwhile, since debate moderator Tapper was focused on attacks made by and toward Trump, Senator Cruz was…shall we say…under-utilized at the event, since Cruz never attacks Trump, what with their little tactical bromance and all. There was little Trump-related to ask Cruz, so Cruz wasn’t asked much, and stood silently as other candidates fought for time. I suspect Cruz, rightly or wrongly, called an audible to himself that he’d get more mileage complaining later on FOX that the CNN moderator was shutting him out, than anything he could have gained by elbowing into the fray last night. He might not be wrong about that. Since he’s polling comfortably in the middle of the pack, he can afford to bide his time while waiting for Trump to implode.

Jeb Bush had no such luxury last night, having under-performed expectations considerably. He had something to prove at the debate, and he failed to prove it. He had several good moments, but they seemed over-shadowed by the overwhelming feeling that he’s just too awkward in his own skin. He also squandered the best opportunity of the evening, when he insisted that Trump apologize to Bush’s wife for having insulted her earlier on the campaign trail, and Trump refused. At that point, Bush could have demonstrated some good old-fashioned chivalrous passion and anger in defending his family, but instead he passively let the moment pass in a way that reminded me of Mike Dukakis’ debate mistakes. If I were a Jeb Bush bundler right now, I’d be pushing the panic button. The man just simply isn’t acting like he believes he’ll ever be the nominee.

From the other end of the Florida spectrum, however, Marco Rubio elbowed his way into most of the policy arguments, and comported himself very passionately, articulately, and his debate performance may advance him a few clicks. And New Jersey’s Chris Christie, whose campaign is on the ropes and who desperately needed a lift, may well have done himself similar favors last night.

On the other hand, Ohio’s Governor John Kasich, who out shined most on the debate stage last month, got terminally lost in the crowd last night, and will quickly be forgotten if he doesn’t create a game change for himself. Similarly, Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker seemed to relish playing to his own weaknesses, and it spectacularly didn’t work at all. Walker or Kasich may be the next exits from the race, following Texas Governor Rick Perry’s flame-out last Friday.

The remainder of the candidates on the main stage did nothing to help themselves, but may not have hurt themselves much either. Ben Carson still doesn’t seem quite ready for prime time, but I doubt it matters yet to GOP primary voters; they’ll continue to give him the benefit of the doubt for a while. Huckabee was Huckabee (which is bad), and Rand Paul was very busy being Rand Paul (which isn’t bad – but he better make a move soon, or he’ll die in media obscurity).

Not that many watch or any care, but speaking of Perry, the kiddie table debate was even more meaningless than last month, without Perry’s presence earlier last evening. My guess is that, with Perry’s exit, we’ve seen the last of the junior varsity debates for this cycle. But if it’s possible to shine in such an event, South Carolina Senator Lindsey Graham did so, much to everybody’s amazement. During the first undercard debate last month, Graham barely showed up, then said nothing memorable. By last night, however, the quaaludes must have worn off, because Graham was memorable, funny, relevant, and had interesting issues-related things to say, all without managing to act like an ass. Quite a trick for this GOP crowd. If Walker, Huckabee, Kasich, or Christie bow out of the Presidential race early enough, Graham may well earn a spot on a future main stage. Yesterday he proved that he’s earned it.

That’s my take, what’s yours?

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