I spent the last few weeks suggesting the early “Kids’ Table” debate featuring low-rated candidates might be as interesting as the later main event. That wound up being wrong. The early junior varsity scrimmage was largely a bore, except for the part where Carly Fiorina owned it.
That part I got right. I had suggested that she and Gov. Bobby Jindal had the best opportunity to climb, and they made the most of it. There was nothing particularly wrong with the performances of Rick Perry and Rick Santorum— and Lindsey Graham did a superb job of accentuating his national security positives. But Jindal showed he deserves better than his meager poll numbers, and Fiorina showed she deserves to be on the 2016 ticket, and I may not mean as running mate.
Fiorina has a lot of #2 buzz right now. It is tempting to imagine our nominee deploying her against the empty pantsuit of Hillary Clinton. But did any participant in the Main Event do better than she did?
That would be no.
So here are loose rankings from both debates. Remember that these are based on debate performance, not my view of the candidate in general. Some people I like did just okay. Some people I am lukewarm about had some good moments. So here goes:
At the early debate:
CARLY FIORINA simply owned the stage. She was lucid, never at a loss, poised and smart.
BOBBY JINDAL enjoyed the benefit of low expectations, and rose to the occasion with bold clarity on social issues and fighting terror.
RICK PERRY-RICK SANTORUM-LINDSEY GRAHAM in a logjam for third. The Ricks were adequate with a few good moments on their chosen talking points. Graham is surprisingly high due to frequent focus on his strong suit (national security), while avoiding his weakness (immigration).
JIM GILMORE was just there, and no one can tell me why.
GEORGE PATAKI was there, too, torturing us with the jarring disconnect of his pro-choice posturing. Roe vs. Wade should be left alone because it’s been there a long time? Please.
The main event:
CHRIS CHRISTIE. I have more than a few questions about his conservatism, but there is no question he bolstered his credentials, especially in the scrum with Rand Paul over what it takes to win wars.
TED CRUZ has a big job: Position himself as the destination for Trump voters if that ride pulls into the station. He did well to show the fighting spirit that has made him a star.
DONALD TRUMP did just well enough to show he more than belongs on this stage and in this race. He was measured, relaxed and made the most of an opportunity to convince skeptics he can be statesmanlike and tough at the same time.
MIKE HUCKABEE comes to the game with a large set of campaign skills, and used them to good purpose. He and Christie were the most natural communicators on the stage.
MARCO RUBIO- SCOTT WALKER-MIKE HUCKABEE in a logjam of thoroughly decent performances that did not hurt their standing, but nor did any of them hit home runs that vault them to Trump levels.
BEN CARSON was hurt by simple lack of time. He needed to show worthiness for the Oval Office from the ranks of those who have never held office. But while Fiorina and Trump got lots of camera time, Dr. Carson was largely ignored. He was not bad, but he was not memorable.
RAND PAUL pulls himself off the bottom with a few bursts of the constitutional conservatism that makes him a hero. But the biggest memory from his performance is the dustup with Christie, which he lost in spades.
JEB BUSH is not a bad man, was not a bad governor and is not a terrible candidate. But his efforts to assert consistent conservatism are simply not supported by the facts of his positions. I cannot imagine one viewer watching and saying, “Man, Jeb is way better than his critics say.” It was his job to make people say that.
It was the job of these debates to make us crave the next one September 16. That job is done. I cannot wait to see if Carly Fiorina can keep up her momentum, if Donald Trump can stay relevant, or if any of the thoroughly worthy middle of the pack names can catch fire.