CLEVELAND, OHIO -- The road to the GOP nomination begins and ends in this rust belt city, and the opening act of that multi-month saga improbably lived up to its immense buzz and hype. The first primetime Republican debate opened with a bang, as take-no-prisoners billionaire Donald Trump and libertarian-leaning Senator Rand Paul launched a series of escalating attacks against each other. There were additional sharp-elbowed moments -- another starring Paul and Chris Christie -- but the raucous start gave way to a well-paced, substantive, wide-ranging, and genuinely interesting exchange. Fox News moderators Chris Wallace, Megyn Kelly and Bret Baier were exceptionally well-prepared, challenging each candidate with pointed, carefully-crafted questions. The result was two hours of compelling television, and for many, a renewed conviction that the 2016 Republican presidential field is impressive and deep. There was no clear winner tonight, nor did anyone obviously self-destruct. My analysis of each candidate's performance:
Marco Rubio: If I were forced to pick a winner of this debate, I'd reluctantly pick Florida's junior Senator. His first few answers were focused, informed and smoothly delivered. He's likable. He's fresh. He's smart. Offered an early chance to punch at Jeb Bush, he turned his answer into a clever contrast point regarding Hillary Clinton. Of all the (relatively few) shots taken at Donald Trump all night, Rubio's was both subtle and cutting. When Trump was bragging about essentially paying politicians to do his bidding, he cracked that he'd given a lot of money to everyone on the stage. "Not me!" Rubio shot back, reminding viewers that Trump was a backer of moderate-turned-Democrat Charlie Crist. The youthful Senator's one uneasy moment came in response to a question about exceptions within abortion bans, during which it wasn't clear if he knew the details of his own record on the issue. Rubio's closing was good, if a bit too polished -- but tonight was about making a good impression, and he certainly did. Case in point: Asked a question about God's guidance at the end of the evening, Rubio cracked a very well-received joke:
Rubio: "God has blessed us with some very good candidates. The Democrats can't even find one."— McKay Coppins (@mckaycoppins) August 7, 2015
John Kasich: The Ohio governor was the last man into this debate and he made the most of his opportunity. He had a story to tell and a resume to share, and he did so repeatedly, in a disciplined but not overly forced way. Even when discussing an issue over which many conservatives have a sharp objections to his policy -- Medicaid expansion -- Kasich's answer was calm, reasonable and compassionate in tone. Politically savvy, if unpersuasive and wrong on the merits. When pressed on how he'd explain his opposition to gay marriage to his own (hypothetical) gay child, Kasich noted that he recently attended a same-sex wedding, despite his differences of opinion. He didn't back down on his traditional marriage stance, but emphasized love and respect, drawing sustained applause from the conservative audience.
Chris Christie: The truculent governor of New Jersey mixed things up twice tonight, going at it with Rand Paul on national security, then Mike Huckabee on entitlement reform. Neither Christie nor Paul covered themselves in glory in their spat: Christie's points relied a bit heavily on 9/11 emotionalism (which is not automatically illegitimate when debating these questions), while cameras caught Paul rolling his eyes as Christie talked about hugging families of the fallen -- as part of a decent retort to a 'Obama hug' slam from Paul. Christie clearly got the best of his tete-a-tete with Huckabee, spelling out the looming entitlement spending crisis clearly and honestly. Huckabee made reference to reform proposals entailing "lying and stealing;" Christie correctly replied that "the lying and stealing has already occurred."
Scott Walker: A top-tier candidate according to national polling averages, Scott Walker was steady but unremarkable this evening. He was even-keeled throughout the broadcast, offering tight answers that sometimes fell short of his allotted time. One of the few ways in which he distinguished himself was routinely refocusing the discussion back on Hillary Clinton, including a quip about cyber security and Mrs. Clinton's email scandal. Overall, a neutral night, which might suit Walker just fine.
Ted Cruz: Oddly absent for long stretches of the debate -- obviously not his choice or fault -- the Texas Senator was solid in the responses he was able to give. His best answer may have come at the tail end of the telecast, in response to a Facebook questioner who asked the candidates if God has spoken to them about their policy priorities. Cruz said that God speaks to him daily though the Bible, shared a moving story about his father's redemption through Christ, and pivoted pretty cleanly to discussing his conservative principles and record. Snappy line:
"We see lots of campaign conservatives." v good line from Ted Cruz.— Stephen Hayes (@stephenfhayes) August 7, 2015
Jeb Bush: The former Florida governor seemed nervous and halting at times, hitting his stride occasionally, like in a good answer on economic growth. Decent, but unremarkable. And unmemorable. Serious question: If they'd known nothing about his family history or massive campaign war chest, would viewers have been able to tell that Jeb Bush is considered a frontrunner based on his showing and presence?
Ben Carson: The novice candidate and world-class surgeon did not dispel concerns about his relative unpreparedness on granular policy specifics, dodging explicit questions with vague generalities -- more so than the others, it seemed. His likability shone through in several moments, including an answer about his remarkable medical accomplishments in which he cracked about brain surgery and Washington, DC.
Rand Paul: The Kentucky Senator was rarin' to go from word one, throwing haymakers and Donald Trump and Chris Christie. Like any candidate, he shoehorned some of his go-to talking points into his responses, but not all of those injections were executed artfully. By far his strongest moment was his prepared closing, in which he authentically cast himself as "a different type of Republican," pointing out that he's taken his message into communities too often ignored and neglected by conservatives.
Mike Huckabee: Aside from or two folksy jokes (turned what seemed to be a Trump slam into a Hillary punchline) and one-liners ("trust and vilify" re: Obama's Iran approach), the former Arkansas governor wasn't much of a factor in the evening's proceedings. He did take the lead on LGBT issues from a socially conservative perspective on several occasions.
Donald Trump: Donald Trump was Donald Trump. Brash, unapologetic, bombastic and supremely confident. The question is whether any of his antics, which critics find obnoxious, would dissuade any of his fans. Based on Fox's post-debate focus group -- which had no shortage of Trump supporters heading into the debate -- Trump hurt himself tonight. Ouch:
Setting aside his braggadocio, lack of specifics and glib hostility, I suspect Trump did damage to his candidacy on three fronts: (1) He praised single-payer government healthcare as "working well" in Canada and elsewhere in the context of serving up offering an incoherent answer on his new healthcare position. He's clear about hating Obamacare, but quite unclear on whether he's still a fan of government-run healthcare, eliciting praise from Socialist Bernie Sanders. (2) He declined to rule out a third party run if he loses the nomination, drawing boos from the crowd. He later boasted about his pattern of more or less bribing politicians and "using" laws to enrich himself. It was a full-throated endorsement of cronyism. (3) Picking a fight with the moderators, especially Megyn Kelly, for asking tough questions seemed thin-skinned and petty. Trump repeated his criticism of Kelly in the spin room after the debate. Not a good look, and probably not especially appealing to Fox viewers. He's entertaining as hell and his mere presence at center stage almost certainly pulled in legions of curious casual viewers. But his ideology seems transactional and fluid -- and his temperament leaves much to be desired. Conservatives fed up with the political class and the Washington establishment may have decided there were better, more reliable options on the stage tonight than Donald Trump. Big question: Is the dramatic anti-Trump souring of Fox's focus group representative of the broader audience, or is that small sample an outlier?
The next scheduled Republican debate will air on CNN from the Reagan Library on September 16.