Politics & Policy

The Third GOP Presidential Debate: Spin vs. Reality

Trump works the spin room. (Andrew Burton/Getty)

Boulder, Colo. — The third GOP debate has come and gone in this picturesque college town where the Rocky Mountains meet the Great Plains. Here’s a look at how candidates are spinning their performances — and what really happened.

Carly Fiorina

The Spin: No spin. For the second debate in a row, the Fiorina campaign did not have anyone in the spin room.

“Carly showed once again that she is the strongest candidate to take on Hillary Clinton next year,” deputy campaign manager Sarah Isgur Flores texts National Review.

Reality: Fiorina has struggled to maintain the polling surge that followed her breakthrough performance at the second GOP debate, and tonight likely won’t help. While there were no major slip-ups, Fiorina struggled to stay relevant in a debate focused solely on economic policy. Her outsider status has won her fans along the campaign trail so far, but tonight, battling a host of candidates with stronger policy chops, she looked unprepared.

Jeb Bush

The Spin: He communicated his record.

“Jeb Bush did what he had to do. He talked about his record in front of millions of Americans,” said campaign manager Danny Diaz. “We know that when he does that it’s a difference maker.”

Of Bush’s dust-up with Marco Rubio, Diaz said that it demonstrated Rubio’s debate skills and Bush’s leadership skills. “I think everybody here understands that Marco Rubio is an outstanding performer. But . . . the difference maker is whether you have a record of accomplishment,” Diaz said. “I think there’s a real question whether Rubio does. I think there’s zero question whether Governor Bush does.”

Reality: It’s true that Bush’s record sets him apart, but it was completely overshadowed tonight by his tense spat with Rubio and his inability to stay above the cross-talk fray. This debate should have been a breakthrough for Bush — few candidates can match his policy prowess and record of conservative accomplishment. But with zero memorable moments, and the shortest amount of time speaking, he remained in the shadows. Tonight could very well be the beginning of the end for his campaign.

RELATED: Jeb Swings at Rubio, Misses, and Finds Himself on the Ropes

Ted Cruz

The Spin: “He carried the debate on his shoulders.”

Cruz’s supporters raved that the debate’s “turning point” came when Cruz took on the CNBC moderators. “Americans are looking for someone who is going to stand up for them and stand up to the mainstream media,” Texas lieutenant governor Dan Patrick said. “The debate changed after that. That’s what Ted does.”

“He stayed out of the cross-talk to get his points across,” Patrick added. “He was in control.”

Reality: Cruz’s numbers have been rising in recent weeks, and should continue to do so after tonight. The Texas senator parlayed CNBC’s clumsy, chaotic handling of the event to his advantage better than any other candidate: The room erupted into applause when he slammed the moderators for trying to spin the debate into a “cage match.” And he marketed himself well to the conservative base, continuing to position himself as a natural fallback option for Trump voters should they begin to desert their man.

RELATED: Cruz Eviscerates CNBC Moderators: Questions Illustrate Why Americans Distrust Media

Chris Christie

The Spin: Christie made the debate substantive.

“When the football question came, the governor showed that in the moment, when other candidates were unable to handle an unserious question, he’s able to be funny and then turn it to something serious,” said a strategist for the Christie campaign, referring to the moment Christie criticized Bush for mentioning his fantasy football team.

“He was the only one to engage on a substantive back-and-forth on entitlement reform,” the strategist added. “He showed that he’s the best person to take on Hillary Clinton.”

Reality: Christie had a solid performance, but it wasn’t the breakthrough he needed. He showcased the bluster he’s known for, but alongside candidates such as John Kasich and Mike Huckabee who were also eager to get into the fray, it failed to set him apart.

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Donald Trump

The Spin: To reporters, Trump’s repeated line was, “I won.”

“It was tougher than the other debates,” Trump said, “but I loved it.”

Reality: He might be right. Trump managed a confident and consistent tone throughout the night, engineering a key moment when he slammed Kasich for his tenure at the failed financial giant Lehman Brothers, backing the Ohio governor into a corner. Despite recent dust-ups with Carson — and his own well-documented instinct for the jugular — Trump refrained from engaging in the cross-candidate brawls that the moderators seemed determine to incite.

RELATED: It’s No Longer the Trump Show

Rand Paul

The Spin: He’s the most fiscally conservative of the bunch, and did what he could with the time he had.

“He had almost no time, but every time he demonstrated his key points he needed to make, whether that was the flat tax or auditing the fed,” said campaign manager Chip England. “He was very efficient and the most substantive.”

Reality: Paul’s performance was forgettable. This main-stage debate could very well be his last.

Ben Carson

The Spin: Carson said he “absolutely” did what he needed to do.

Reality: Carson won’t lose votes after tonight, but he certainly won’t gain many either. He was largely absent at the beginning of the night, and failed to make his current national lead seem like a sure bet for the rest of the race.

Marco Rubio

The Spin: “Marco clearly dominated tonight.”

“I don’t know what more you could have asked out of a candidate than what he did tonight,” said campaign manager Terry Sullivan.

Reality: Rubio proved tonight that he’s the field’s most effective communicator. He handled the moderators’ attacks with poise, and excelled at adding a personal touch to just about every question he answered. In his heated exchange with Bush, one of the night’s buzziest moments, Rubio prevailed.

RELATED: Rubio and Cruz Shine

John Kasich

The Spin: Kasich was the adult on the stage.

#related#“I got to the point where I was sort of fed up,” Kasich told reporters. “I think people need to know what the truth is from somebody who has the experience. . . . And that’s what I tried to do tonight.”

Reality: This was the performance Kasich needed. With the House pushing through sweeping budget legislation on Wednesday, Kasich was able to tie current events directly to his record as the field’s chief budget guy in a way that mattered. Kasich indicated before the debate that a fight was coming, and tonight he threw punches that stuck. He’s got the experience, but if he wants to stay relevant, he’ll have to start communicating it in a less combative tone.

Mike Huckabee

The Spin: He “shaped the debate” on entitlements.

“His points on Social Security and Medicare showed that these are issues he hits home runs on,” said his media consultant, Bob Wickers. “He stands alone on these things by saying, ‘If you’ve paid into the program, you will be taken care of. There’s not going to be any tinkering.’”

“He plays by the rules, but still managed to be energetic and get his points across. He handled the moderators with class,” Wickers added.

Reality: This was Huckabee’s strongest debate thus far. It’s up to his team to capitalize on the momentum he gained tonight.

— Elaina Plott is a William F. Buckley Fellow in Political Journalism at the National Review Institute.

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