Mary Katherine Ham:
Carly Fiorina, who almost didn’t make the stage tonight but for a last-minute uproar and change in CNN’s formula, certainly proved she deserved to be there. Much of the post-debate buzz has been about her performance, which improbably met the very high expectations set by her last performance. She also became the first candidate to make the leader, Donald Trump, blink or waver for even a second. But in the face (see what I did there?) of her short and sweet retort to his comments about her appearance, Trump responded by sheepishly backing off his comments and praising her looks, which left Fiorina understandably steely and unmoved.
Trump fans and critics alike will agree that, at this point, a key to making any headway in this race for anyone but Trump is to steal a little of his buzz from him, and Fiorina did that tonight, by the numbers. She landed the two most viral clips of the debate— one was about the “faces” comment, but the other was her substantive and passionate answer on Planned Parenthood.
When she started saying she was going to bring together Iran and Planned Parenthood in one answer, I got worried, but she really made that work.
I thought Marco Rubio was a close second, turning in a strong, knowledgable performance and benefitting from the juxtaposition of his in-depth foreign policy answers to Trump’s blustery ones. I also very much enjoyed his answer on learning about the American dream from his grandfather, who spoke his native language of Spanish. It was personal and sweet, and added the until recently uncontroversial notion that free-market, conservative values benefit everyone and we should therefore make an effort to communicate about them to everyone. If that happens to be without the need for a translator, great.
All that being said, Carly’s last performance got her buzz but not as much movement in polls as it might have warranted. And, Rubio did well last time, too, and got exactly nothing from voters as a result— many of whom might be unwilling to forgive him his transgressions on the issue of immigration, especially in this climate.
As for the leader of the race, I thought Trump was about as Trump as he normally is. He did not demonstrate in-depth knowledge or any difference in tone, and he doesn’t need to. The only difference for Trump tonight was he faced a more effective opponent in Fiorina. I doubt he did anything that hurt himself in any real way, though there’s a certainly a chance Fiorina could peel off a bit of his support. This is also fabulous, and is exactly the kind of thing that makes Trump the media magnet he is:
I think Trump just did all the emoji faces in 7 seconds. pic.twitter.com/hC18pVxKgh
— Jason Mustian (@jasonmustian) September 17, 2015
An interesting bit of data on that point from Kristen Soltis Anderson, who was conducting a focus group of young Republicans during the debate:
We asked our participants before and after: who's your favorite? Started out Trump 10, Carson 2. Carly and Rubio each peeled off 2 Trumps…
— Kristen Soltis Anderson (@KSoltisAnderson) September 17, 2015
Trump got lots of time, partly because the moderators were so interested in asking him about all of his dust-ups with fellow candidates, but he was less the star of this debate than the last because the others had stepped up their game. There were times in the second hour when he was silent for surprisingly long periods of time.
Fiorina and Carson, the other outsider, gained the most Twitter followers tonight, with Trump coming in third. But Jeb Bush might have the most retweeted tweet by the end of the night, for this apology to Barbara Bush for discussing his pot-smoking on national television:
— Jeb Bush (@JebBush) September 17, 2015
Speaking of Bush, I find him entirely underwhelming.