Politics & Policy

The Second GOP Debate: Spin vs. Reality

Trump holds court with the media after the debate. (Sandy Huffaker/Getty)

The second GOP debate is in the books. Here’s a look at how the campaigns are spinning the performances of their candidates — and what really happened on stage.

Carly Fiorina

The spin: No need for one.

Fiorina did not have any representatives in the spin room after the debate. “She left it all out on the field,” texted deputy campaign manager Sarah Isgur Flores. “No need to add a single word.”

The reality: If there were any doubts that Fiorina had earned her spot on the main debate stage, they were quickly dispelled. She was the star of the debate, particularly in a much-anticipated face-off with Donald Trump, who last week made a disparaging comment about her appearance.

“I think women all over the country heard very clearly what Mr. Trump said,” Fiorina said on stage, and left it at that. Trump could only pander, calling her a “beautiful woman” with a “beautiful face” in response. There was no no doubt who had the upper hand in that exchange, and in most of the exchanges Fiorina engaged in on Wednesday evening.

Rand Paul

The spin: Rand is mainstream.

“He’s the only candidate who followed Ronald Reagan’s doctrine of peace through strength, talking about the Tenth Amendment, taking federal power and returning it to the states,” said campaign manager Chip Englander.

Englander also highlighted Paul’s remarks on medical marijuana, an issue on which he says “Paul is in the mainstream of the party.”

The reality: Paul’s performance was forgettable, and his views on foreign policy are anything but mainstream in the GOP. He was solid on medical marijuana, but for the most part, he came off as a candidate working hard to stay relevant.

Scott Walker

The spin: He was unintimidated.

“Scott Walker, number one, was unintimidated,” said Walker senior adviser Robert O’Brien, who highlighted the governor’s early dust-up with Donald Trump. O’Brien noted that after Walker pushed back on Trump, the real-estate magnate “did not come after Scott Walker one more time during the debate.” What’s more, O’Brien said, Walker pushed back on moderator Jake Tapper, who at one point tried to correct one of the governor’s responses, in the same “unintimidated” fashion he pushed back on union protesters.

The reality: This line is getting a little old. After a lackluster summer of campaigning and a mediocre performance at the first debate, Walker needed a big, standout performance. It didn’t happen.

John Kasich

The spin: “John has got the whole package of what we’re looking for in a president, and as he has more time, people will learn more about who he is and what his vision is for the future,” said former Senate majority leader Trent Lott, who is backing the Ohio governor.

“A good performance doesn’t mean you’re a solid conservative,” Lott added. “John Kasich has the record to back it up.”

The reality: Kasich was irrelevant which, actually, isn’t too far off from what his own spinmeisters said.

Mike Huckabee

The spin: “The guy that had the least amount of time did the best, I think, with the time he had,” said senior adviser Chip Saltsman. He said the former Arkansas governor was the one candidate on stage “who didn’t get in a fight with anybody else, he didn’t call anybody names.” Saltsman pointed to Huckabee’s answers on religious liberty as a strong moment.

The reality: Huckabee will have to do more than that to make a mark.

Ben Carson

The spin: “We felt comfortable with what he did last time and he connects with the public in a way that many people don’t quite get,” said deputy campaign manager Ed Brookover.

“We accomplished all of our goals. He stood up for his values, explained his views, laid out who he is and what he’s about, and did it with his Carson sense of humor, and once again I think the American people will speak about what they thought of the results tonight, and they’re already speaking. We gained 300,000 Facebook followers today, raised $1 million today,” Brookover said.

The reality: Nobody will ever accuse Carson of being overly emotional. The retired pediatric neurosurgeon is known for his subdued, quiet mannerisms. That makes it hard for him to stick out on a stage with eleven people on it. But pundits panned his first debate performance, and his poll numbers skyrocketed in its wake anyway. So what do we know?

Jeb Bush

The spin: “I think we had the moment of the debate tonight, the best applause line of the night was ‘My brother kept us safe,’” said senior adviser David Kochel. “The other candidates followed in behind Governor Bush on that and supported W. against Trump. It was the moment that basically shut down Trump for about 49 minutes, [and] that’s not easy to do. I think he also put to rest the low-energy question tonight, not only by showing strength and presidential leadership, but with humor.”

The reality: Bush’s task this debate was to come out swinging and to prove he could connect with voters on an emotional level. He did the former, if not the latter. He had several fiery exchanges with Trump, and he defended his wife and his brother from the real-estate mogul’s assaults. But responding to Trump’s barbs wasn’t enough to make Bush’s performance stand out.

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Marco Rubio

The spin: “We didn’t have anything to prove tonight and some people did, and he didn’t, but yet he did [prove something],” said campaign manager Terry Sullivan. “Instead of engaging in this kind of slap-fest of ‘whose company did what,’ or name calling, or ‘this person said this about you,’ he just kept it on the issues, talked about policy, and laid out a vision of where America should go and why he should be president.” Sullivan also praised Rubio’s interactions with Trump, noting he stayed out of the dirt.

“He wasn’t disrespectful and he just talked about what a commander-in-chief needed to do. And it really took the wind out of Trump’s sails. Like, Trump just didn’t have a response for it,” Sullivan said. “And it was interesting: It was the one time in the entire debate where Trump didn’t have a witty retort.”

The reality: Rubio had one of the strongest performances of the evening. He looked knowledgeable, sounded clear, and neutralized attacks with ease.

Chris Christie

The spin: “I think he did great. . . . He was able to talk about entitlement reform, he was able to talk about national security, obviously was able to kind of rise above some of the petty squabbling at times. I thought that was very good for him,” said Mike DuHaime, a senior strategist for the Christie campaign.

DuHaime said Christie’s scuffle with Carly Fiorina, whom he criticized for dwelling on herself too much, was “authentic Christie. . . . I think that’s always good for him to be himself.”

The reality: Christie turned in a strong performance. He left his mark talking about national security and showed some of the bluster that made him a contender in the first place.

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Ted Cruz

The spin: “I thought it was great,” said Cruz campaign manager Jeff Roe. “We stayed above the fray. We were able to show a consistent, his pattern of being a consistent conservative, not just a campaign conservative. And frankly from our perspective I thought he was able to show some personality and show some policy chops that maybe people haven’t seen before.”

The reality: Cruz tends to treat debates as opportunities to deliver mini-stump speeches, so debate moderator Jake Tapper repeatedly cut him off mid-answer, making him seem somehow ill-prepared for the format. That being said, the Texas senator didn’t do anything to hurt himself tonight and predictably stayed away from slinging mud at Donald Trump.

Donald Trump

The spin: National Review didn’t catch Trump during his brief period in the spin room, but it’s safe to say the billionaire business mogul thinks he came out on top.

The reality: As is true of most GOP presidential events these days, the debate was in many ways the Trump show. He got the most speaking time, he was combative with his challengers, and his facial expressions were the subject of attention.

But Trump seemed to lose steam as the night went on. There was a period in the middle of the three-hour debate where he was silent for a half-hour, though the moderators were allowing candidates to interject. By the end, his responses were rambling and incoherent. His suggestion that vaccines cause autism was a low point.

— Eliana Johnson is Washington editor of National Review. Alexis Levinson is a senior political reporter for National Review.

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