ATLANTA -- It's likely the Donald Trump melodrama is the only news you've heard from the RedState Gathering of conservatives in Atlanta. But something unusual happened here, and it had nothing to do with Trump.
A parade of Republican presidential candidates marched through -- Chris Christie, Rick Perry, Bobby Jindal, Marco Rubio, Carly Fiorina, Mike Huckabee, Ted Cruz, Jeb Bush, Scott Walker -- and not one of them bombed. Not one underwhelmed, disappointed, or mailed it in. Instead, the GOP hopefuls were sharp, fired-up, and focused, even as the embarrassments of the latest Trump controversy threatened to overshadow it all.
Why were they so good? Here's a theory: The candidates prepared like crazy for the recent Cleveland debate, honing their arguments, finding the most effective way to express their positions. Most of that material was never used -- there was no time, given the constraints of a big-field debate. Plus, they were terrified of making a mistake in front of the huge Fox News audience. But in Atlanta, with all that preparation, and with more time -- and without the crushing pressure and nerves of the debate -- they let go with their newly-polished best stuff.
Ted Cruz staffers privately complain that when he gives a knockout speech, it's often dismissed because Ted Cruz is expected to give a knockout speech. That's just what he did in Atlanta. The Texas senator focused on a theme of conservative authenticity -- attacking the Republican congressional leadership in Washington -- that deeply resonated with the RedStaters. They rewarded him with multiple standing ovations.
It might seem odd to say that a crowd that could appreciate Cruz so much would also, just an hour and a half later, give a warm reception to Bush. But that's what happened when the former Florida governor delivered a solid, policy-packed speech that at the same time gave off an air of energy, passion, and liveliness. Before Bush spoke, some in the audience had thought about booing him. When he finished, they stood and applauded.
Who else shone? Mike Huckabee gave a good-humored speech that sent the clear message that, while he still feels strongly about the social issues that characterized his 2008 campaign, this time the economy and national security are tops.
"People ask me, every time I go to a campaign event, what do you think the most important topic we face?" Huckabee said. "I think they want me to limit it to one. I say that's like asking me which wing of the airplane is most important -- the one on the left, or the one on the right?" Huckabee explained that, for him, one wing is "the economy, jobs, getting America moving again," while the other is "national security, making sure this country is safe."
Who else? Bobby Jindal was a hit -- funny, focused, with an at-times touching emphasis on his family's immigrant story. The Louisiana governor's parents came to the United States from India knowing virtually nothing about their new country and worked hard to become Americans from day one.
"We need to insist on assimilation," Jindal told the crowd. "Immigration without assimilation is invasion. We must not let that happen in America."
Carly Fiorina followed up on her breakthrough debate performance with the kind of speech that has been winning supporters one-by-one for the last several months. Chris Christie was entertaining and substantive, pleasing the crowd by openly discussing the rift between the Chamber of Commerce, once a strong ally, and conservatives on issues like immigration and crony capitalism. Rick Perry was strong, as was Scott Walker, as was Marco Rubio. They all impressed.
The news was, in other words, relentlessly good: a field of remarkably talented candidates rounding into campaign shape. A group of candidates younger, more energetic, more passionate, and more focused on the future than the geriatric Democratic field.
The bottom line is that the RedState gathering illustrated the degree to which Trump's antics, and the wall-to-wall media coverage they inevitably attract, are like an eclipse casting a shadow over all the good things happening in the Republican presidential field. That's not to say Republicans should try to force Trump out of the race; given the increasingly out-of-control feel of Trump's campaign, the problem will likely work itself out in coming weeks. But it is to say there is a lot good happening in the Republican presidential campaign, and someday Republicans will be able to see it, clearly and without the distraction that is Donald Trump.