For all its hype, the first Republican debate of the 2016 election was just that: one of several debates, and 15 months before election day.
After the dust settled Thursday night, campaigns blasted out emails declaring that their candidate had won the night, but all acknowledged that the marathon had only just begun.
The next leg took the candidates to Atlanta on Friday for a gathering of conservative activists, who will assess how they did on the stage.
During the prime-time debate among the top 10 candidates, no one had a breakout moment to push to the fore of the crowded GOP field. Nor did anyone stumble so badly as to put the viability of their candidacy in question.
Trump dominated the debate, a quandary for his
rivals, who were focused on introducing the American people to their records.
“The backup plan was, Dad would have probably given him a noogie,” said Jeb Bush Jr., speaking to reporters about his father, former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush. “It didn’t come down to that, obviously.... I guess we’ll have to hold off till maybe the second debate for the Trump noogie.”
Bush Jr. said his father would remain focused on his tenure as governor.
“Dad’s campaign is focusing on his track record, his message, what he did as governor of Florida, his unique life experiences. That’s what he’s trying to get across, leading with his heart,” he said. “It’s tough — you have about six to eight minutes actually to talk — but it was pretty civil and people got their points across.”
Ohio Gov. John Kasich, who barely made the cut to participate in the debate, was pleased by his own performance.
“Each one of these is another important step on the road to the nomination,” he told reporters. “Everybody said, ‘You’re getting in too late; you can’t make the debate.’ Well, we made the debate. They said, ‘You can’t raise the money.’ We raised the money.... So this has been a history of people all saying, ‘Well, I don’t think he can hit the ball over the fence,’ and I kind of get lucky. I get a nice pitch and can knock it over the fence.”
During an earlier debate among the seven Republican candidates who failed to qualify for the prime-time event, there were breakthrough moments. Former Hewlett-Packard chief Carly Fiorina stood out, but given her lack of name identification and resources, it’s unclear whether her performance will be enough to boost her to the main stage for
the next debate, in September.
“I’m just going to keep doing what I’m doing,” she told reporters. “Look, everyone here can admit, when I announced my candidacy on May 4, you wouldn’t think we would have come this far…. I’m going to keep introducing myself to the American people.”
For former Texas Gov. Rick Perry, whose stumble during a 2012 presidential debate destroyed his candidacy, a smooth and gaffe-free performance was key. He delivered, but noted that the road to the nomination is long.
“I was very satisfied with the performance up there,” he told reporters. But he added, “This is a long game. This is the first date, so to speak, and before Americans decide who they’re going to marry, it’s going to be a long process.”
Former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum, who won the party’s 2012 Iowa caucuses as well as contests in 10 other states, agreed. He argued that there was too much emphasis on the importance of the debates.
“What I’m going to focus on is getting to the early
primary states,” he told reporters. “I think we have
way too much focus on
national polls and not enough focus on where the votes are. I’m going to be focused on where the votes are. I’m going to be in Iowa next week.”